Expert Zone

Straight from the Specialists

Why inflation is so persistent

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Inflation has been high for nearly four years and has not responded to the policies of the Reserve Bank of India or the central government. This is because the kind of inflation that we have is of an unusual variety and cannot be checked by conventional means.

It is important to look at the numbers. In July, the consumer price index (CPI) was up 8 percent and threatens to crawl up further after a deficient monsoon. That’s because 68 percent of the increase in CPI comes from food.

In the food basket, the prices of vegetables, fruits and milk have jumped the most. Together, this accounts for 31 percent of food inflation. Of these, vegetables were responsible for the entire increase in July’s CPI.

Vegetables and milk are critical components of CPI and an adequate increase in supply to cover higher demand can make all the difference. Demand should not be curbed in the interest of a healthy diet. This is also true of other nutritious food such as meat and eggs. Since production was slow to grow, a demand-supply gap has emerged. Inflation is all about that.

How high will the Sensex go?

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A bronze bull sculpture is seen as an employee walks out of the Bombay Stock Exchange building in MumbaiSince April, the stock market has been in a frenzy after a long period of utter gloom. In quick succession, the Sensex jumped month after month to cross 26,000 on July 7. This was not mere euphoria created by the election of the Narendra Modi government, with a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha after a long time.

Budget 2014 is only the first step

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Much was expected from Budget 2014/15 without realizing that India’s economy has its own rhythm, which changes only by small degrees if left to itself. That is why big-ticket reforms are necessary to quicken the pace. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had reason to move forward with caution and make changes only at the fringes.

Labourers work at the construction site of a multi-level parking in ChandigarhNo wonder then that P. Chidambaram almost welcomed the budget as if it was a carryover from his own budget. Even the increase in shareholding by foreign investors in the insurance and defence sector, which Jaitley has announced, had been on the previous government’s agenda. Now that the opposition has shrunk, the Modi government took the first opportunity to do that, though with conditions.

Higher tax revenue from higher growth

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The 2013-14 budget got completely out of hand because of a whopping shortfall in tax revenue. Development outlays had to be drastically cut to manage the fiscal deficit.

The key to the budget is revenue. The ratio of gross tax revenue to GDP reached a high of 11.9 percent when GDP growth was at its peak of more than 9 percent in 2007-08. Since then, both declined and the ratio has been in the narrow range of 10-10.7 percent. GDP growth is a painless way of raising revenue.

The rupee at a crossroads

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The rupee was tossed around quite a bit in the last 10 months. It dropped to a low of nearly 69 to the dollar, creating an economic crisis, before it recovered and is now at 59-60. The threat is not that it may drop once again, but that it may appreciate further and upset the economy in other ways.

Why would the rupee appreciate? Because there are expectations the Narendra Modi government will facilitate development and enable the economy to get back on course. This is what drove the Sensex beyond 25,000. But the currency market was more stable in spite of the huge inflow of $2.2 billion in 10 trading days of May.

How much inflation is good for growth

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The RBI has left it to the government to decide the inflation target since it considers it politically sensitive. The central bank will accordingly modulate its monetary policy to ensure that the government’s target is not exceeded.

Targeting inflation alone cannot be the sole objective of monetary policy, though it is an important criterion for regulating the repo rate. Even developed countries have concerns about inflation – when it is too low or too high.

Tough to get the math right in 2014/15 interim budget

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Finance Minister P. Chidambaram went more by economic considerations than political ones in manoeuvring his pre-election budget, the focus being on fiscal consolidation with an eye on rating agencies.

The 2014/15 interim budget did not have any new populist measures. The minister may have been convinced that such gimmicks just before elections do not yield votes. Also, there was hardly any time to effectively roll out a new scheme.

Slow pick-up in India’s GDP growth

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GDP estimates by the Central Statistics Office for the 2013-14 fiscal year show an improvement over the previous year. But the extent of improvement is too small for comfort. Possibly, in the final revision, that small margin may disappear or even turn negative.

This year, India’s GDP is expected to be up 4.9 percent from 4.5 percent the previous year. This additional growth has come mainly from agriculture, due to a favourable monsoon. Agricultural growth was three times the previous year. Production of non-food grains (like vegetables and fruits), and animal products (like meat and eggs), did not increase adequately in spite of the inflated demand and will continue to be the main source of inflation.

How much will U.S. recovery help India?

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After a prolonged slowdown, the U.S. economy is finally showing signs of recovery though much of it comes from investment in inventories and may not be sustained at the present high rate.

The United States is the largest economy with a share of more than 22 percent in the world GDP. Naturally, even small changes in its behaviour have a perceptible impact worldwide. To India, the United States counts for a lot, although possibly less than it does for China.

How the U.S. Fed’s tapering can affect Indian markets

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It was never expected to be permanent. Quantitative Easing (QE), designed to pep up the U.S. economy after the financial crisis of 2008-09, has survived for five years. The United States is now on a rebound and unemployment is receding. That has tempted the U.S. Federal Reserve to reconsider tapering its economic stimulus.

This was first announced on May 17 and sent tremors through global markets. Asian markets were the most affected; India was worst-hit, having come to depend on FII investment. The knee-jerk reaction of FIIs was to reduce exposure to emerging market economies in the expectation that liquidity would dry up and interest rates would harden.

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