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Coronavirus crisis is a chance for India to reform its economy

India is facing its biggest crisis in decades, with a three-week lockdown in a nation of 1.3 billion people likely to result in economic recession, millions of job losses and possible starvation among the poor.

By: Bloomberg | Updated: April 9, 2020 2:56:52 pm
Coronavirus crisis is a chance for India to reform its economy Migrant labourers relax at a community centre in Chandigarh during India’s coronavirus lockdown. (Express Photo: Kamleshwar Singh)

A looming economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is a chance for India to enact sweeping reforms to fix ailing sectors and attract more foreign investment to the country.

That’s a call being made by a former central banker and an ex-government official, as well as financial market participants, who say India needs to liberalize and deepen its financial markets, and take policy steps to fix the banking and farm sectors. There are early signs of this already happening, with the central bank giving overseas investors greater access to its sovereign bonds, allowing local banks to tap offshore currency markets and companies a choice of more complex hedging tools.

India is facing its biggest crisis in decades, with a three-week lockdown in a nation of 1.3 billion people likely to result in economic recession, millions of job losses and possible starvation among the poor.

“It is said India reforms only in crisis,” Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, wrote in a LinkedIn post this week. “Hopefully, this otherwise unmitigated tragedy will help us see how weakened we have become as a society and will focus our politics on the critical economic and health care reforms we sorely need.”

India has a history of taking reform steps during periods of crisis. For example, in 1991-92, it freed the private sector from a myriad of government controls, deregulated financial markets, reduced import tariffs and opened up the economy to more foreign investment to avoid a balance of payments crisis.

Timeline of reforms induced by crisis

1991-92: With the economy on the brink of a balance-of-payments crisis, the then government cut import tariffs, abolished industrial licensing to foster competition. A stock market scam during that period led to formation of the capital market regulator -- the Securities and Exchange Board of India

1997-98: Economic sanctions post India’s nuclear weapons tests, and the Asian financial crisis prompted large-scale divestment of state-run assets to garner revenues

2014: Post the Federal Reserve’s taper tantrum, authorities started work on an inflation-targeting regime for the central bank and an asset quality review that made disclosure of India’s bad loans more transparent

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has championed a number of reforms since first coming to power in 2014, including introducing a nationwide sales tax and an insolvency law, reducing corporate tax rates and kickstarting the biggest sale of state assets. At the same time, he’s raised import duties and dithered on trade deals, setting back progress.

With public finances stretched and likely to worsen amid the lockdown, fiscal policies also need an overhaul, said Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry. The government had projected a budget deficit of 3.5% of gross domestic product in the year through March 2021, but some are estimating it could reach as high as 6.2%.

“The focus on unattainable targets, the fact that Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act has been honored only in the breach and the consequences in terms of budgetary integrity and transparency need serious review, even overhaul, in our view,” he wrote in a local newspaper along with Devesh Kapoor.

Some economists, however, have cautioned against calls to allow the central bank to buy buy government debt in primary auctions.

“There are also instances of a crisis leading to bad policies that outlived their purpose,” said Rudra Sensarma, professor of economics and dean at the Indian Institute of Management at Kozhikode. “This calls for exercising caution when designing radical moves like a return to deficit monetizaton in the present situation which may later prove hard to undo.”

For many analysts, the latest moves to open up India’s bond market and allow banks to trade currencies abroad were unthinkable a few years back given India’s deep distrust of debt capital and its failure to acknowledge even the existence of an offshore currency market trading the rupee.

But more needs to be done to attract long-term foreign capital to plug the domestic saving-investment gap, according to Sonal Varma, head of Asia economics ex-Japan at Nomura Holdings Inc.

“In the current context, the biggest challenge facing India is the dearth of growth capital,” she said. “India has historically bitten the bullet during times of crises.”

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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