Monday, May 19, 2014

Inherited Problems for Modi's Economy Czars

After the Tsunami of celebrations, the time to address immediate economic problems for the yet-to-be sworn in Narendra Modi government, has probably started even before it takes office.
Top mandarins say the BJP will inherit not only the iconic red sandstone buildings on Raisina Hill, which stand at the heart of Delhi’s power corridors, but also the myriad economic `time-bombs’ which the Manmohan Singh Government will be leaving behind.

Gas Wars
Possibly the first challenging decision which the new BJP-led government will have to tackle will be  the gas pricing conundrum, which the Manmohan Singh regime will be leaving. Earlier this year, gas prices were sought to be hiked to over $ 8.40 a mmBtu, double the current rate.
The move which was stalled by the Election Commission as part of its code of conduct, will if accepted by the new Government, mean an immediate increases in the price of electricity, fertiliser, gas used by public transport, and plastics with its longer term knock-on effect on the price of almost every good and service in the country. 

For a government which would be trying to consolidate its recent massive mandate, any sudden price rises could translate into quick dampening of support and a reversal of voting trends in key state elections which would be coming up in the next two years.
However, not allowing any increase could damped investor sentiments in the oil and gas sector, which hasn’t seen any major discoveries in  recent past. Besides, the Reliance Industries Ltd, which was instrumental in seeking the rise in the first place, has sought arbitration proceedings on stalling of the price hike. The Government would have a legal fight on its hands which again would not exactly help build investor confidence, especially foreign investor confidence, something which the BJP-led government is believed keen on.
A possible way out would be to go in for staggered increase in the price of natural gas which could help keep prices under the lid and yet at the same time solve the possible legal tangle with the country’s largest industrial house, which many say is also close to both the new and former ruling parties.

Battle Over Money
The Yaksha & Yakshi Sculptures Guarding RBI

If India Inc., which so lustily cheered Narendra Modi’s victory on Friday, has any one demand they want fulfilled as of yesterday, it is a cut in interest rates. Their bitter complaint has been that high interest rates have locked out investment in new factories and projects and their one point demand in repeated meetings with finance ministry mandarins has been steps to reduce interest rates, to help drive back growth. India’s GDP grew by just 4.7 per cent last fiscal after falling to a decade low growth rate of 4.5 per cent in the year before.
However, with inflation still raging high, the country’s central banker, Raghuram Rajan favours continuing using interest rates to combat price rise. The country’s consumer-price inflation quickened in March for the first time in four months to 8.31 per cent from a year earlier, forcing Rajan to leave untouched key policy rates unchanged in the last review on  April 1, this year.
Speculation is already rife that this could lead to a battle royal between Rajan and the new Government.
In the run up to the elections, Rajan had told an audience in Switzerland that he “determine(s) the monetary policy. Ultimately, the interest rate that is set is set by me.” In response,  BJP leader Subramanian Swamy had reportedly lashed out at Rajan and his interest rate management and offered the advice : “We need to immediately drop interest rates.”
The BJP has however in recent days indicated that it would defend the RBI’s autonomy and Rajan’s job was not at risk.
How to manage the monetary policy to tweak growth and at the same time get Rajan to agree with the BJp's priorities, will be a concern for the Modi government. That could spell either the first public `war’ over economic policy-making or the first successful wooing of a `Congress’ econo-crat into the BJP fold.

Golden Goose
Raw Gold Bar

The government had increased the gold import duty and other curbs on the yellow metal to deal with the current account deficit, the difference between inflow and outflow of foreign currency, which had touched $88 billion during 2012-13. The curbs had brought down the yellow metal imports significantly to $32 billion in 2013-14. 
However, high duty of 10 per cent and insistence on minimum export before importing more gold has hit the gems and jewellery industry, which has been stridently seeking review of the policy. One of India's big ticket exports, this sector's sales to the world market have fallen 11 per cent in 2013-2014 to $ 34.79 billion after having grown at an average of 15 per cent over the last  5 years.
The BJP led government by Narendra Modi, coming from Gujarat, which is the epicentre of the gems and jewellery sector, is certain to seek changes in the policy. However, the government is expected to adopt a cautious approach and go in for a staggered duty cut.

Coal Bill
Open Cast Coal Mine

Part of India’s growth story dimming is because mines which feed India’s factories have been forced shut by environmental cases. While new mines have been stalled by red tape.
India, which has one of the largest coal reserves in the world, with some 293 billion tonnes of coal under its forests, farmlands and deserts. However, with the mining sector shrinking by nearly 3 per cent during the last two years, India has been forced to import coal worth $ 15 billion last year and is expected to import another $ 17 billion during the current year. Similarly, mining of iron ore, vital to India’s steel mills which seek to ratchet up output to 300 million tonnes over the next ten years, has been stalled in much of the country by environmental and legal activisim.
The Modi Model has long claimed that its problem solving capacity is far greater than the long drawn out consensus approach favoured by Manmohan Singh’s UPA Government. Many say the silent mines will be this Model of Governance’s real test.