Steady As She Goes

Gulzar Natarajan has a typically excellent post (part of a two-part series) on India’s economic growth trajectory. And they key point in the post is a counter-intuitive one.

India cannot, and should not, grow too rapidly.

In Can India Grow, we had argued that India does not possess the capital foundations to sustain high rates of growth for long periods. It does not have the physical infrastructure, human resources, financial capital, and institutional capabilities to grow in the 7-9% ranges without engendering serious distortions and overheating. The last such episode of high growth in the 2003-11 period required nearly a decade for companies to deleverage and for banks to overcome their bad assets. While some commentators have since come forth with similar views citing aggregate demand etc, I think we were the earliest to put forth a clear case for lowering expectations and targeting a 5-6% economic growth rate.

Our household owns two cars, a Tata Zest and Tata Nano, and the best analogy I can come up with for 2003-2011 is that it was like racing the Nano along the expressway to Bombay at a 110 kilometers per hour. It might (perhaps) have made it to Bombay at those speeds, but the little blue car would then have needed a long time at the mechanic before being road-worthy again. India, similarly, did grow rapidly in that period, but as Gulzar Natarajan puts it, it did not have the “physical infrastructure, human resources, financial capital, and institutional capabilities to grow in the 7-9% ranges without engendering serious distortions and overheating.”

Or put another way, if we want India to grow rapidy in the next two decades or so (and who wouldn’t?), it is very much a question of whether we’re driving a Nano or a Zest over the course of the next two decades. Or, god willing, an even better car. But a Nano will simply not cut it, and in terms of our infrastructure, human resources, financial capital and institutional capablities, we’re more like Tata’s cheapest car than we are like the Tata’s most expensive car.

But our country needs those upgradations if we want to achieve (and sustain) those aspirational growth rates. And here’s another counter-intuitive bit: even a 6% growth rate would be a challenge when we are talking about sustaining it over the course of twenty long years. That’s not the pessimist in me talking, that’s empirics:

A 6% baseline growth for the next three decades would be extraordinary. Underlining this point, as Ruchir Sharma has written, there are only six countries which have grown at 5% for four decades – Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and China. As the data shows, India has become the seventh. But just two have done it for five decades in a row – South Korea and Taiwan. Given that China looks certain to fall short, India could become just the third. It could go one better and strive to become the only country to grow at 5% for seven decades in a row. This would be exceptional at a time when developed countries will struggle to grow at even 2%.

But for that to happen – for us to embark on this journey, we would do well to first take the Nano to the garage, and bring out the Zest instead. We could do with a bigger engine, better suspension, better safety features – why, better everything:

We should simultaneously use the growth to build the capital foundations – increase domestic savings, deepen financial inclusion, develop robust financial intermediation systems, expand physical infrastructure, prioritise human capacity development, and develop and strengthen state capabilities.

All of which is easier said than done, as many a “growth star” state of the 20th century will tell you. This stuff is hard, unglamorous, politically risky, and with payoffs that manifest themselves only in the long run. But also, this stuff is unavoidable. Here’s one way to think about it as a student of economics: studying macroeconomics without a deep study of development economics is dangerous.

For as a nation to our north and east is hell bent on showing us in recent times, attemptig rapid growth without getting the basics right isn’t a good idea:

A too rapid growth will invariably drive up signatures of overheating – high inflation, property bubbles and land valuations, spike in wages, environmental damage, clogged infrastructure like traffic congestions and water scarcity etc.

Institutions matter. Education matters. Physical infrastructure matters. State capacity matters.

And attempting to engineer rapid growth without getting all (not some, all) of these right is a bad idea.

P.S. If you are a student of the Indian economy, the first chart in this blogpost is worth deep contemplation and reflection. What is your best guess for what comes next, and why is your guess whatever it is? That’s be an excellent essay to assign at the end of a macro semester that focuses on the Indian economy.

3 thoughts on “Steady As She Goes

  1. Very useful question to pick on. I have liked Gulzar Natrajan’s calls for caution and to aim appropriate. On the contrary it also reminds me of that popular paper in public policy about the art of muddling through which India has tended to.

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