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Narendra Modi government presses acceleration switch as reforms start having impact on ground

Economic Times:  October, 2015

New Delhi: India's economy may be about to turn the corner on the back of robust public spending that's beginning to have an impact on the ground coupled with strong urban consumer demand, economists and government officials said. 

Three months of sound industrial growth driven by manufacturing, signs of a pickup in investment, robust indirect tax collections and indications of a mining sector reboot suggest that the government's attempts to revive the economy through reforms and higher public capital spend are working. 

Going ahead, the tailwinds of falling interest rates, big foreign inflows and a further strengthening of consumer demand in anticipation of the Seventh Pay Commission's award should propel the economy forward, said the analysts and officials. Helping this along will be the festive season bump along with the government chipping away at issues with steady reforms. 

"We are on track... acceleration switch has been pressed... We are pushing ourselves to move towards high-growth trajectory," Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) secretary Amitabh Kant told ET. 

Kant pointed to a number of policy decisions that have already been taken in this regard. These include further freeing up the foreign direct investment ( FDI) regime, bringing consistency and predictability to tax policy and pushing hard on infrastructure projects, particularly in roads and railways. "The key challenge was liquidity, particularly in the infra sector and the government has done its bit by boosting capital expenditure in roads and railways," said Kant, who has been spearheading the Centre's initiative to make doing business in the country easier as well as the Make in India campaign, resulting in the increased flow of foreign investment. 

The government has sought to press ahead with policy changes despite resistance from the opposition on some key changes. A senior finance ministry official said the pace of reforms will be maintained. "We are seeing ample signs of recovery firming up," said Sonal Varma, India economist at Nomura Financial Advisory & Securities (India) Pvt Ltd. "Last twothree months signs have been more visible." 

The rate at which the revival is taking place is gradual, said another expert. "Recovery is definitely setting in but the pace is slow. In this slow pace, most of the data will not look positive; there could be ups and down," said Sunil Kumar Sinha, principal economist, India Ratings & Research. "What is important is to see the trend." 

A number of indicators seem to be pointing to a sustained pickup though a broad-based recovery is still not secured, largely because of low capacity utilisation holding back corporate investments, experts said. 

Manufacturing output has expanded for the last 10 months with growth hitting a near three-year high in August at 6.9%. Airline travel rose 18.7% in August, another indicator pointing to improving consumer sentiment, apart from an increase in automobile sales. 

Cement dispatches have picked up, as construction of highways gets underway and some stalled projects resume. "There are signs of tepid but unidirectional recovery," said Abheek Barua, chief economist. HDFC Bank. "There is a sustained positive trend in many sectors... We are perhaps eightnine months away from significant recovery. One thing doing well is urban consumption though the rural piece continues to be a problem area." Industrial production growth climbed to a near threeyear high of 6.4% in August and the expansion in the two months of the second quarter is significantly faster than the average 3.1% in the April-June quarter.That suggests the economy has left the disappointing first quarter behind. GDP expanded 7% in April-June quarter, lower than 7.5% recorded in the preceding three-month period. 

Though the Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) for September has been lower, better indirect tax collections, particularly excise duty, and higher car sales suggest economic momentum ahead of the busy second half of the year that kicks off with the festival season. Excise is levied on goods at the factory gate. 

Indirect tax collections rose 35.8% in September, and by a healthy 11.5% after stripping away the impact of additional tax measures. Car sales rose nearly 10% in September.

Inventory stocking in anticipation of festival buying should push manufacturing, with the decline in interest rates providing a timely boost. Most banks have cut interest rates in the range of 25-40 basis points, bringing home loans to around 9.5%. That follows the Reserve Bank of India cutting the policy rate by a more-than-expected 50 basis points on September 29. A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point. 

"Data for capital goods and consumer goods production over the past one year on a monthly basis may have gone up and down but the trend line is pointing northwards, which is encouraging," Sinha said. "We are not in a stage where everything has fallen in place... Recovery unlike 2008 would be Ushaped." 

The likely stimulus from the upcoming Seventh Pay Commission, further monetary easing of 25-50 basis points, the thrust on public investments coupled with structural reforms such as the goods and services tax (GST) and ease of doing business are likely to aid the process of recovery, said Citigroup's Anurag Jha in a note. GST is set to be rolled out on April 1 next year but key preparatory work remains to be completed.