When Harry met Modi

In a Forbes magazine article that caused a happy stir in right-wing social media, Harry G. Broadman argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “governing prowess” had “boosted India’s GDP growth” and “produced sizeable increases of inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI)”. He stated that the reforms implemented by Modi in his first three years were “sizeable, though not huge”, but still impressive in the context of a “messy” system of democracy, and “against the backdrop of decades of reform inertia and inaction by successive governments in Delhi”. Furthermore, Modi’s reforms “are destined to make lasting, rather than transitory, changes in the structure of the Indian economy”.

It sounded a lot like the claims that pro-Modi commentators used to make until demonetisation and farm loan waivers broke their spirit. Take a dash of genuine policy accomplishments, toss in some tweaked (or, worse, simply renamed) pre-Modi initiatives that have carried on, add some hyperbole, underplay the blunders and voila! you have a Strong Reformist Government.

But don’t take my word for it, let’s evaluate the list of claims presented to prove that a “cunning and effective” Modi is transforming India in an unprecedented way.

Broadman starts with FDI, arguing that Modi has contributed not only to a big jump in FDI flows to India (which is plausible) but that India under Modi has equalled China, the great economic story of our time. That’s because India’s FDI in 2015 (as a share of GDP) rose to 2.1%, approaching China’s 2.3%. Furthermore, “between 2005 and 2015 (obviously a period that in part predates Modi)”, he writes, India’s FDI (as a share of GDP) doubled, while China’s halved.

It’s unclear why India deserves the credit for a slowing of FDI flows to China, and the World Bank chart (below) is self-explanatory. FDI to India has picked up, but is still in line with the historical trend. But don’t let that stop anyone overselling this accomplishment.

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Broadman then goes on to list eight “notable” reforms, which we analyse below, starting with those that are, in fact, correct:

A revised law on bankruptcy, which will generate freer flows of capital and the flexibility for them to be invested in their highest value in use, thus promoting a more robust, competitive Indian market both for new business start-ups as well as for forcing stale companies who cannot make ‘a go of it’ to close shop and sell their assets.

Few people realise that India’s investment rate is currently at a 14-year low, and a major reason is the inability of some of India’s biggest companies to pay off their debts, which has hurt banks’ ability to lend. The 2016 Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code is aimed at reversing this by speeding up the resolution of bad loans. This will be a complex and drawn-out process, but putting this law in place was necessary, and counts as a win for the Modi government.

The introduction of a nationwide sales tax, which will integrate an otherwise excessively complicated disparate system of different state and federal taxes, a reform that will not only increase tax collections but also help reduce interstate barriers to trade and distortions arising from gaming where within the country purchases should be consummated.

There’s a heated debate underway over how much India’s complex Goods and Services Tax (GST) will benefit the economy, and many will recall that Prime Minister Modi was instrumental in blocking the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s original GST proposal as Gujarat chief minister. But hypocrisy aside, the Modi government has shepherded the GST into existence, helping transform India into something close to a single market, and gets the credit for this major tax reform.

Elimination of subsidies for diesel fuel, which will help plug a fiscal hole in government revenues, and even more important create disincentives for using an energy source that adds to, rather than diminishes, pollution and greenhouse gases.

It is true that the Modi government formally decontrolled diesel prices on 18 Oct 2014. But all the heavy lifting had been done by the UPA, which on 17 Jan 2013 permitted retailers to increase the price of diesel by 50 paise/month.  As a result, the gap between the actual cost of supplying diesel and its subsidised retail price dropped from ₹9.21/litre to ₹2.80/litre between Jan 2013 and May 2014 (according to Ministry of Petroleum data). It continued under the Modi government until a collapse in global oil prices starting Aug 2014 eliminated the price gap entirely. By the time the Modi government decontrolled diesel prices, oil prices had crashed to the point that decontrol produced a diesel price cut (rather than a hike) of ₹3.37/litre, a freebie no politician could refuse.

If anyone deserves credit here, it is Manmohan Singh.

Removing regulations that forced companies to repetitively renew their business licenses at an artificially high frequency simply to generate revenues to be collected by local bureaucrats.

This one is mystifying. India abolished licensing for most industries on 26 Jul 1991, and the list of industries that require a licence has declined to four: aerospace & defence, industrial explosives, hazardous chemicals and tobacco products. The process of renewing licenses for this handful of industries has indeed been simplified — most notably in defence, where the duration of a licence has extended from three to 15 years, but this hardly qualifies as major reform.

Relaxing rules that reserved specific sectors to be the province of only small and medium sized enterprises even if large firms could produce the goods or deliver the services at lower cost and create economies of scale.

This one is just wrong. The number of items reserved for small-scale enterprises fell from 836 in 1995 to 20 in 2015 under successive governments, and the Modi government’s sole contribution here was to de-reserve the last 20 items. The perils of Googling your way to economic analysis?

Using transparent and competitive auctions for allocating access to the telecom spectrum.

There’s no doubt that the Modi government held telecom spectrum auctions in Mar 2015 and Oct 2016, and is planning one more in 2017. But there’s nothing new here. Even the UPA conducted a “transparent and competitive” auction of 3G and 4G spectrum in May-Jun 2010, before its reputation had been tarnished by what the Supreme Court termed an “arbitrary” and “capricious” 2G spectrum allocation in 2008. Following the Supreme Court’s cancellation of that allocation, the UPA held 2G auctions in Nov 2012, Mar 2013 and Feb 2014. Essentially, the Supreme Court has ensured that no government can allocate resources without holding an auction, and Modi’s being PM is frankly incidental here.

Opening investment in the railway network to majority foreign ownership, thus allowing India to tap into new sources of capital to build out its infrastructure and help the country integrate into a unified economic space to create economies of scale in both manufacturing and agriculture and thus enhance its international competitiveness.

Sounds promising, one problem: foreign investors are still substantially barred from “investment in the railway network”, which remains the preserve of Indian Railways. Where they are permitted is in railway infrastructure, specifically suburban corridors under public-private partnership (PPP), high speed rail, freight corridors, railway electrification, signalling, freight and passenger terminals, rail projects in industrial parks and mass rapid transport systems. This is a solid set of investment avenues, although there was already foreign participation in mass rapid transport and freight corridors before Modi took office. More importantly, any investment in railways depends crucially on the decisions made by a cautious railways bureaucracy. Raising FDI limits may be helpful, but they were never the main barrier to private participation in India’s rail story.

This could count some day as a win for the Modi government, but it’s still very much a work-in-progress.

Permitting foreign investors to participate in construction projects that otherwise were reserved for only domestic service providers, thus generating opportunities for joint ventures and other businesses to incorporate world-class construction techniques and materials.

Another misfire, it would seem. FDI has been freely allowed in construction for more than a decade, and accounted for 7% of total FDI flows between Apr 2000 and Mar 2017. However, stagnation in the sector has slowed FDI flows in recent years, and the Modi government has eased minimum area restrictions, investment lock-in periods and the like (here and here), winning approval from the real estate industry. But the reforms haven’t yet worked: FDI flows to the sector in the last two years were US$218 million, one-twelfth (I kid you not) of the US$2.6 billion that came in during the UPA’s final two years. These reforms may be desirable, but they are far from transformational.

It turns out that only two of the eight reforms proposed as evidence of Modi’s reformist chops add up; five are simply wrong, and one seems too minor to count. To top it all, Broadman concludes with a familiar defence of demonetisation, repeating the widely-known benefits of going cashless without any real examination of the heavy costs of demonetisation, something even Modi supporters now acknowledge (here and, ahem, here).

To sum up, I’ll have what he’s having. 

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Modi’s autopilot achievements

In a 13 Feb 2016 speech at the recent Make in India jamboree in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took credit for many economic achievements. These included India’s climb in various World Bank and UN indices, and all-time records in coal and vehicle production, software exports and cargo handling by ports.

The claims were taken from the BJP’s 31 Jan 2016 press release, which proclaimed that “it is necessary to show the statistics because in the Congress-led UPA-1 & UPA-2 regime, many of these indicators were moving in the opposite direction” and to counter “baseless propaganda and criticism”.

And this is what it had to say:

That’s quite a collection of achievements. The problem with claims of this nature is that there is a good chance — particularly in an economy that’s been among the world’s fastest-growing for a couple of decades — that each year will break some record or the other.

So how to judge? One way is to examine how commonplace these achievements actually are:

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Pretty common, it turns out.

The good news for the BJP is that only two of its 13 claims are outright false. But the fact remains that most of these economic achievements are so much the product of past momentum that the UPA, supposedly paralysed into inaction in its second iteration, could also have made 12 of the 13 claims, one more than the BJP. Even the short-lived United Front government in 1996-97 could have made at least four of these claims without batting an eyelid.

Political parties are entitled to seek credit wherever they can. But the current government’s obsession with topping lists and rankings produces empty claims such as these. Instead, Modi should spend more time listing what he sees as the main hurdles to faster growth, and what he did to fix them.

How bad is the UPA’s economic record?

The economic record of the United Progress Alliance (UPA) is a major election issue, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making the case that weak leadership and a welfarist ideology led the UPA to fritter away India’s economic future.

At a press conference earlier today, BJP leader and former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha posed 18 questions (that are mostly rhetorical, I should warn) to Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, and ended with the following statement:

The fact of the matter is Sri Chidambaram that you will be remembered by history as a spoiler, as some one who specializes in sub 5 percent growth rate, for your hubris and for your baseless tall claims which you do not tire of making even today. Your words and statements have lost all credibility.

Feelings do seem to be running high here. But what is the UPA’s actual record of delivering economic growth?

The case against the UPA is encapsulated in the following chart, which shows a discernible economic slowdown from early 2012:

UPA defenders counter that, the current slowdown notwithstanding, growth in 2004-13 has been much faster than it was under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998-2004:

They also point out that India under the UPA has been the second fastest growing major economy in the world after China:

How to make sense of all this? A growth number means nothing in isolation: it must be pegged to a baseline expectation. As an example, economists Maitreesh Ghatak and Sanchari Roy recently examined the claim that Narendra Modi has transformed the economy of Gujarat since becoming chief minister in 2001. They found that:

Gujarat’s growth rate in the 1990s was 4.8%, compared to the national average of 3.7%; in the 2000s it was 6.9% compared to the national average of 5.6%. The difference between Gujarat’s growth rate and the national average increased marginally, from 1.1 percentage points to 1.3 percentage points. A good performance? Yes. Justifying the hype? No.

Just as a proper evaluation of Gujarat’s economic performance under Modi must take into account how the broader Indian economy is doing, any judgement regarding India’s economic performance cannot be divorced from the state of the global economy with which India is now tightly integrated. The NDA had to endure the effects of the dot com crash and 9/11 in 2000-01 while the UPA’s record was affected by the collapse of the US housing bubble and the recession that followed in 2008-09.

I therefore compare India’s per capita GDP growth since 1998 with that of developing countries in general (using World Bank data). Doing so allows us to isolate — to some extent — the domestic determinants of economic growth from global factors.

So what do the numbers show? India’s per capita GDP grew on average 1.2 percentage points faster every year between 1998 and 2013 than did that of low- and middle-income (let’s call them “developing”) countries. If we define 1998-2003 as the NDA period and 2004-13 as the UPA period, we find that growth in the former was 1.8 percentage points higher than the developing countries while in the latter it was only 0.9 percentage points higher.

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Slam dunk for the NDA? Not quite. Since many NDA supporters believe that the high growth during UPA1 was shaped by the NDA’s policies, let’s do the minimum and introduce a one-year lag i.e. give credit for growth in the first year of each government to its predecessor.

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All of a sudden, the per capita GDP growth gap (in India’s favour) during the NDA period drops to 1.2 percentage points while during the UPA period it rises to 1 percentage point.

Many people like to distinguish between the UPA1 (2004-08) and UPA2 (2009-13), the argument being that the first was some sort of golden period for the UPA while the second witnessed an economic unravelling. The numbers do bear this out: the UPA1 (1.6 percentage points) now shines in comparison with the NDA (1.2 percentage points) while the UPA2 (0.3 percentage points) looks weaker.

If you’re wondering why introducing a one-year lag made such a dramatic impact on our findings, the reason is this: the Asian crash of 1997 hurt the growth rates of developing countries that had convertible capital accounts, which made India shine in comparison in 1998 and 1999. Correspondingly a pick up in developing country growth between 2003 (3.8%) and 2004 (6.3%) made India’s 2003 performance (6.2%) look much better than its 2004 performance (6.3%) in relative terms, even though the absolute number in 2004 was higher.

Now let’s run the numbers with a two-year lag under the reasonable assumption that a new government’s economic policies take more than a year to really affect growth.

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The UPA now seems to have outperformed the NDA, with the UPA1 beating its developing peers by an incredible 1.8 percentage points, and the UPA2 under-performing the NDA by a little over a percentage point.

So what does all this tell us about these governments’ relative economic performance? The NDA may be better or worse than the UPA, and the UPA may be better or worse than the NDA. Their relative performance jumps around so much under different cut-off points that it is hard to reach a definitive conclusion. My own view is that the effect of government policy on economic growth is cumulative, and that there is little to separate the various governments in terms of broad direction.

Will we all stop making exaggerated claims now? (I thought not.)