It’s work in progress. Three events dominated India’s economic landscape last year, but whether they can be described as “progress” is debatable. One definitely isn’t: the unseemly brawl that broke out over control of the Tata group with Ratan Tata returning as interim chairman after ousting incumbent Cyrus Mistry. A lot of dirty linen is being washed in public, putting partly in the shade the political charges being traded elsewhere.
The second is the goods and services tax (GST), whose objective is to replace all taxes levied by the federal government and the states with one central tax. The GST is scheduled to come into effect by April or — at the latest — by September. Although both houses of Parliament have approved the bill and the President has signed off on it, a GST Council is now squabbling over the details, which could delay implementation.
“The timing is not right for implementation,” says West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra, who is also chairman of the empowered committee of state finance ministers. He lays the blame squarely on the center’s move to demonetize Rs500 ($7.4) and Rs1,000 notes. “We all supported the GST under the premise that this would be the only destabilization factor,” Mitra told a TV channel. “We did not know that there would be a much bigger destabilization in the form of demonetization that would be let loose on the country.”
“What will have been gained from [demonetization], and at what cost, and mostly borne by whom?” –Jitendra Singh
Demonetization represents much more than destabilization; critics argue that it has struck a body blow on economic activity in India. The decision – which was entirely unsuspected – was announced on 8 November 2016. While the pros and cons of the measure still continue to be debated, the consensus of opinion appears to be that while the proponents of demonetization may have had good intentions, the suffering it has caused to millions of Indians is unwarranted. Since Rs500 and Rs1000 notes make up some 86% of the total currency in circulation in India, especially in the vast rural areas, one economist compared the pain to what individuals might experience if 86% of their blood was removed from their bodies.
To be sure, demonetization has its supporters. While industrialists and corporate chiefs (Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, K.V. Kamath and Deepak Parekh, to mention a few) favor the move, economists (including Nobel laureates Amaryta Sen and Paul Krugman, among others) are critical. “The clan of economists has spoiled the party [with] their estimates of how output will be affected as spending has stopped, manufacturing hit and several workers laid off. The net result can be a fall of between 0.5% and 2% in GDP,” says online news channel Firstpost. “The debate still goes on.”
According to Singh, Modi took “a bold, even visionary, step” with demonetization in attempting to combat the black economy and counterfeiting, and cutting financial support to terrorism. “What was always key, however, was how well the implementation process would unfold,” he notes. “Even supporters of the decision would say that the implementation was far from perfect.”
Kartik Hosanagar, a professor in Wharton’s department of operations, information and decisions, views demonetization against the backdrop of other economic gains. The year 2016 has overall been “a good year” for India, he notes, listing the highlights:
- The GDP growth rate has held up at more than 7%.
- Foreign direct investment went up significantly during the year. (It rose 30% on a year-on-year basis to $21.6 billion between April and September 2016, according to public data published by the India Brand Equity Foundation, a government-sponsored trust.)
- Initiatives such as the ‘Make in India’ program “have borne early fruits.” Many MNCs including Panasonic and Pepsi set up manufacturing facilities in India during the year.
- “The startup world has seen a drop in investment activity, but I see that as a return to sanity rather than a worrisome contraction,” Hosanagar adds.
“The biggest wild card in all of this, of course, is demonetization,” notes Hosanagar. “It’s unclear how it will all play out.” He hopes that “any impact on economic activity and GDP will be temporary, and the long-term benefits such as an increase in cashless activity will be more permanent.” He adds that “this is the India optimist in me speaking.”
“The biggest wild card in all of this, of course, is demonetization.” –Kartik Hosanagar
Part of the problem with demonetization was that it came as a bolt from the blue; the government claimed giving advance notice would have the defeated its purpose. But not everyone agrees with that view. “There was no need for secrecy,” counters Jayati Ghosh, a professor of social sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “All demonetizations through history have been done with some advance warning. This reduces the damage to innocent people. The government could monitor suspicious transactions after the announcement, just as it is doing now. In any case, I would not have demonetized Rs500 notes. If high-value notes like Rs1,000 are the problem, why replace them with even higher value notes?” (A Rs2,000 note has been introduced as part of the package.)
The government, meanwhile, seems to have moved the goalposts: The claimed objective of the exercise has apparently changed from rooting out black money to promoting cashless transactions. Several measures have been introduced, among them a 0.75% discount on digital payments made for buying petrol and diesel and a 0.5% cut in the price of railway season tickets bought using digital technology.
In another twist, the government appears to be no longer pushing demonetization as a “cashless” plan. It has now become a “less-cash” strategy. That is as it should be; the world doesn’t have a cashless economy so far. In India, Bloomberg data shows the share of cash in the volume of consumer transactions is 98% (against 55% in the U.S. and 48% in the U.K.). It is 90% in China and 86% in Japan. Much of the cash transactions are in rural India. So, expectedly, life came to a near standstill and much misery ensued when people found themselves unable to use their own money. Even when the money was in a bank account, limits on ATM withdrawals compounded the problem further.
But India is also a country where finding novel, workable solutions to problems – commonly known as jugaad — is par for the course. While long lines multiplied in front of banks and ATMs (several people claimed to have had heart attacks while standing in them), ways were found to deal with the situation. By December 31, the visible impact was a Parliament at near paralysis as politicians took potshots at each other, a plethora of banking riches coming back into the system (some 90% of the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes were returned), and a host of new scams to convert black money into white with the connivance of bankers and politicians.
Nobody is denying a short-term setback. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has reduced the GDP growth rate forecast for 2016-17 from 7.6% to 7.1%, the Asian Development Bank from 7.4% to 7%, Fitch from 7.4% to 6.9% and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch from 7.7% to 7.4% (for calendar 2016). All believe, however, that growth will recover the next year.
Modinomics to the Defense
Modi defended the demonetization exercise in a televised speech on New Year’s Eve, arguing that it had to be done. “It seemed at times that the evils and corruptions of society, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, had become a part of our daily lives,” he said. “Crores of Indians were looking for an escape from this suffocation.”
Modi said in his speech that after demonetization, only 24 lakh (2.4 million) Indians acknowledge an annual income of Rs. 10 lakh each (Rs. 1 million). “Can we digest this? Look at the big bungalows and big cars around you,” he said. “If we look at any big city, it would have lakhs of people with annual income of more than [Rs.] 10 lakh. Do you not feel, that for the good of the country, this movement for honesty needs to be further strengthened?” The upshot of that is his government would now try to bring hundreds of thousands of tax evaders into the net.
But Modi will find it tough to strengthen the tax machinery sufficiently to force those people to start paying taxes, according to critics. “If he doesn’t, then what was the point of subjecting the whole country to so much disruption and pain?” writes Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu newspaper, in The Wire, a nonprofit publication.
Modi also said in his speech that over the last 10-12 years, the demonetized currency was being used in the black economy, and that excess cash in the system caused inflation to spike and fueled corruption. “Lack of cash causes difficulty, but excess of cash is even more troublesome,” he said. Critics have attacked those remarks as being unsound in economic theory.
Demonetization could have potentially derailed the GST, which was practically a done deal, according to experts interviewed by Knowledge@Wharton. The impact of demonetization will pass in a couple of quarters, but the GST delay will have more far-reaching effects. “Undoubtedly, the GST is a bigger reform. It would be the most fundamental reform initiated since 1991,” says Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at Crisil, a global S&P company.
“There was no need for secrecy. All demonetizations through history have been done with some advance warning.” –Jayati Ghosh
Commenting on demonetization, Joshi says: “Any disruption in the flow of money, verily the economy’s lifeblood, impacts business cycles quickly. There is no precedent to the scale of demonetization that has taken place in India. That is why quantifying its impact is so difficult. A few countries that replaced their old currency with new did it in a gradual manner — the introduction of the euro in the Eurozone, or in Zimbabwe where the old currency was gradually phased out.”
The GST Impasse
The government has only itself to blame for the GST impasse. The proposal has been around for a dozen years. Its origins lie even further in the past: In 2000, the BJP-led government of A.B. Vajpayee started a discussion on the GST. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had opposed it when he was chief minister of Gujarat; now, it is the pivot of his reforms. Experts agree that the GST could increase India’s GDP by 1.5% to 2%. It has received, in its time, the backing of former finance ministers Pranab Mukherjee (now president of the country) and P. Chidambaram. Yet it still gets held up.
One reason is that implementing the GST requires a constitutional amendment. The GST Constitutional Act has already been passed by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha (the two houses of Parliament) and, on 8 September, the President of India signed off on it. The states – in the form of the GST Council – are reading from the same book. But it may take some time to get to the same page.
According to Singh, while the GST has the potential to boost GDP growth and foreign investment flows, the opposition to it could cost the country dearly. “There is the very real possibility that some actors will take the low road, and try to delay or even derail the GST implementation,” he notes. “If that were to occur, it will not be the first time in post-1947 Indian history when key leaders would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Singh hopes that the political parties involved, including state level parties, “put the collective long-term interests of India and all Indians above apparently enticing short-term partisan gains, and get the GST bill implemented at the earliest.”
Viewed in isolation, demonetization and GST could be promising for India, according to Singh. “Absent some of these spillovers, the long-term impact of the demonetization could be quite positive for the Indian economy,” he says. “If the GST gets implemented soon, and if there is further rationalization of the tax structure, and if opposition parties cooperate, there may be a couple of quarters of somewhat lower growth, and then the economy would return to its positive trajectory. But there are several ‘ifs’ in between.”
Ta ta, Cyrus Mistry
The end of the year also saw a high-profile family split. The 149-year-old Tata group, the largest in the country and the most respected, with a global turnover of more than $100 billion, sent shockwaves through corporate India with the ouster of chairman Cyrus Mistry.
Mistry took charge four years ago after a search panel was appointed to find a replacement for Ratan Tata, who was turning 75. The 50-year-old Mistry was a surprise choice. And problems were apparently building for a long time under the surface.
“Any disruption in the flow of money, verily the economy’s lifeblood, impacts business cycles quickly. There is no precedent to the scale of demonetization that has taken place in India.” –Dharmakirti Joshi
Mistry is now being ousted from all the Tata group companies. Says a letter to shareholders by Ratan Tata: “Since Mistry was appointed as a director of various Tata group companies only as a corollary to his being the chairman of Tata Sons, the right step would have been for him to resign as director. Unfortunately, he has not yet done so, and his continued presence as a director is a serious disruptive influence on these company boards, which can make the company dysfunctional, particularly given his open hostility towards the primary promoter, Tata Sons.”
Responded Mistry: “I have to say that the board of directors [of Tata Sons] has not covered itself with glory. To ‘replace’ your chairman without so much as a word of explanation and without affording him an opportunity of defending himself in a summary manner must be unique in the annals of corporate history. The suddenness of the action and the lack of explanation have led to all manner of speculation and has done my reputation and the reputation of the Tata group immeasurable harm.”
Most of the Tata group is owned by the Tata trusts, of which Ratan Tata is chairman. So there are no two ways about how the ouster move will go. But Mistry has his supporters. His family has a stake of some 20% in Tata Sons; the trusts hold about 66%. Besides, he is not without friends, who include some independent directors. Nusli Wadia, a board member of Tata Motors, has entered the fray (with yet another letter). “[JRD Tata, Tata Group chairman before Ratan Tata] never expected anyone to toe his or the Tata line,” he told the board of Tata Motors (where he has been an independent director). “It is both sad and unfortunate that Tata Sons and its interim chairman Ratan Tata are not only not practicing this great tradition but effectively destroying it.” Wadia has sued Tata Sons for defamation.
Singh suggests that the problems at the Tata Group run beyond those related to Mistry’s ouster. He describes the group as “a structurally complex entity, with multiple interests at play, all of which may not always be naturally aligned.” As Mistry’s family owns a significant minority shareholding in Tata Sons, “it is natural to think that interpersonal issues are paramount here,” he noted. “This is a mistake. There are difficult structural issues embedded in the context, some of which will not go away with Mistry’s departure as chairman of Tata Sons.”
According to Singh, the Tata-Mistry controversy could have wider, deleterious effects if it is not resolved soon. “At a minimum, it is a distraction from the effective governance and operations of the group; it could damage the Tata brand; and it also has the potential to raise questions in the international community about the attractiveness of India as an investment destination.”
As matters stand, Mistry has resigned from the boards of the major Tata companies (except for Tata Sons). “The fight goes onto another platform,” he told the Business Standard newspaper after he quit. “[I] will pursue it further. This move gives me an opportunity to concentrate my efforts…. I will be moving legally.” Won’t the battle be long and arduous? “I have a lifetime ahead of me,” he replied.
In a statement to the shareholders announcing his resignation, Mistry states: “Bringing to the fore these ethical issues can have a short-term adverse impact… I feel strongly that such short-term pain is necessary for long-term interests.”
Is that Cyrus Mistry talking or Narendra Modi?