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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 50

Extraordinary Times, Unexpected Happenings and Real Economy

Wednesday 3 December 2008, by Arun Kumar

These are extraordinary times, so strange and unexpected things occurring should not surprise us. The only thing predictable is that one cannot predict correctly (that also applies to the Indian cricket team!). The US Government, after promising under different heads a few trillion dollars, seems to be fighting a losing battle with the economy steadily declining.

The Indian Government, after so much song and dance in the last few years about the need for strict adherence to FRBM, has thrown it out of the window by announcing huge expenditures. Much was also made of the RBI’s autonomy but that is also a thing of the past with the government requiring it to act quickly and, of all things, it has released almost Rs 2,70,000 crores of liquidity in a month — an unthinkable amount till recently.

The latest data from the US economy points to a worsening economic situation. For the first time in several decades, consumer expenditures have dropped and that too sharply. Worse, this data is for the quarter immediately preceding the big pain induced by the collapse in the financial sector in mid-September. So, analysts have argued that the last quarter of 2008 is likely to be much worse.

There are straws in the wind, suggesting that the recent rise in the stock markets is a blip. Reports suggest that the largest insurance firm AIG, which has been given a total bailout package of $123 billion, has more or less exhausted this amount in a month. The bailout of $ 85 billion announced in September looked huge but another $ 38 billion had to be given and even that has disappeared into a bottomless pit. How much more would be needed by the AIG?

That depends on the liabilities on its books and how much have its assets degraded in the present situation of rapid economic decline. All this indicates the difficulties that every business, and not just financial institutions, may be currently facing. All of them may be headed for difficulties because the assets on their books have lost value with the decline of the markets while their huge liabilities may be intact. The balance-sheet may have huge holes.

The largest Japanese bank, Mitsubishi Financial Group that took equity in Morgan Stanley to bail it out, is now in trouble. It is trying to raise an equity of $10.7 billion. The shares held by Mitsubishi have fallen in value by 40 per cent. This has shaken the confidence not only in Japan but also in the rest of the world. So entities that may look healthy at one point of time and may be asked to bailout the not-so-healthy ones may themselves be in trouble very quickly not only because they took on another collapsing entity but because their own portfolio has degraded—not in years but in days and months.

The clear lesson is that given the disastrous financial situation worldwide, one does not know which entity is headed for trouble in the coming days and months. Under the circumstances, every entity is protecting itself. One way to do so is to become conservative and not trust others, not invest, etc. This becomes an added source of trouble.

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The situation has gone out of the control of governments as far as the financial markets are concerned. The losses in the books have become so large that even the governments do not have the resources to save these entities. The monetary authorities have lost their power to regulate since their instruments are now blunted by the loss of trust and abnormal events in the economy. They may lower interest rates, but investments in the current situation of growing uncertainty will not rise. They may release money but it will simply sit with economic agents since they do not want to take on fresh commitments and want to stay liquid rather than commit funds. In brief, demand has collapsed.

The real economy is being severely dented since most businesses have also indulged in buying the financial instruments that are now in trouble. After all, they like to make as high a profit as possible and the financial markets were promising that and luring all and sundry — everyone was trapped by greed.

An Indian conglomerate bought a Europe firm at what was then thought to be a high price. Today the price of that asset would have collapsed in the market but the debts taken to buy the company would stand. The financial situation of the firm must be poor. The same company also bought two more firms later for the sake of prestige and again they would have taken a hit. How this firm would fare in the coming months is a moot question.

Assocham put out a report that soon some major industries will retrench in a big way. Not so surprisingly, within a week, they have withdrawn the report under pressure from the government which is still claiming that the economy would grow at seven per cent. Is this feasible, given that the industrial growth has fallen to 1.5 per cent for the latest month and major parts of the tertiary sector, like the financial sector, hotels, tourism, trade, travel and housing, are seeing sharp declines? The Finance Minister has claimed that more jobs would be generated this year than during the entire NDA regime — a poor game of political one-upmanship.

The problem is likely to aggravate as time passes because the world economy is headed into a prolonged recession or even a depression. Major Indian industries are likely to slow down or show negative growth. Can industry carry surplus labour in times when its bottomline is being hit due to lack of orders and build-up of inventories? Its losses can only mount even faster and it would sink sooner than later unless a national strategy is worked out as to how India will cope with the coming difficult time. There is no point in living in denial and not preparing.

Malaysia delinked itself from international capital flows in 1997 to save itself from the ongoing economic collapse in South-East Asia. The US and the IMF lectured it then for its ’’wrong’’ policies but later held it up as a model for others. We also need to protect our interest and not open ourselves indiscriminately. The FIIs brought in funds but now they are withdrawing and leading to the collapse of the stock market. The government is opening up the insurance sector to greater FDI. In these times when the insurance sector is also in deep trouble (AIG being the biggest one) where will these funds come from? If they do come, would they also not try to quickly exploit the situation to shore up their parent companies, etc.?

We need to invest in our real economy, keep employment up, encourage investment and keep our savings moving within the economy and not let them leak out through opening up the sector. Are we learning anything from anyone? If not, that is not unusual but a part of the predictability.

(Courtesy: The Tribune)

Dr Arun Kumar is a Professor, Centre for Economic Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at arunkumar1000@hotmail.com and arunkumar@mail.jnu.ac.in

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