As weeks of coronavirus lockdown wear on, everybody is raring to kickstart the new low-touch economy.
After hinting at a difficult tradeoff between economy and lives, the Narendra Modi government allowed a partial revival of economic activity in agriculture, movement of goods, digital businesses, access-controlled industries like SEZ and warehousing from 20 April – with strong social distancing measures.
The same lives-livelihood tradeoff is being debated across world capitals now. US President Donald Trump can’t wait to reopen America. In Britain, this is descending into a predictable tussle between the Right and the Left, and even a cabinet split.
But nobody knows how consumers, industry and workers will adapt in the post-pandemic economy. Merely lifting the lid will not be enough. As globalism recedes in the near-term in the aftermaths of the pandemic, economies will look increasingly inward. Countries will have to double down and look for solutions by boosting domestic demand. And look for more regional sourcing than global. For Modi, this will be a continuation of nationalist politics if he increases public spending to create jobs and spins it as the second wave of nation-building. A sort of ‘Remaking India’ project.
It was war spending and the ensuing Marshall Plan that pulled the world out of the Great Depression last century. The US Fed, directly and indirectly, infused trillions of dollars into the global economy and pulled the world out of the 2008 financial crisis. But that kind of global collaboration is sorely lacking today. As Fareed Zakaria wrote recently, “This crisis is occurring at a time when global cooperation has collapsed and the traditional leader and organizer of such efforts, the United States, has abandoned that role entirely.”
Short-term solutions may just have to come from within the borders now, even though experts have, for long, railed against inward-looking economic policies such as America First, Brexit and Xi Jinping’s recent focus on local demand. After the coronavirus pandemic, this trend will deepen. For India though, it may actually work if it focuses on shoring up massive domestic demand.
Re-open and recover
“Our people want to get back to work, and I think there’s pent-up demand,” he said.
If there is indeed a ‘pent-up demand’, it should be like flipping a switch to bring in a V-shaped recovery – one where the economy rebounds as soon as lockdown ends. But many say it will be a U-shaped recovery, and will take more than a year. There is also that L-shaped impact when it takes really really long time to recover – like after the Great Depression.
Others are saying it will depend on whether you choose to look at it as a recession or a natural calamity like hurricane.
But there is no playbook for this kind of crisis and no classical response either. Arvind Singhal of Technopak rightly said to me, “You can’t tell the difference between economists and astrologers’ prediction in this situation.”
Indian domestic demand
How can India then boost domestic demand after a frightening pandemic?
Indian growth never really fully recovered from the last man-made macro-economic crisis — Modi’s demonetisation in 2016. And after several quarters of slowing growth, green shoots had just begun to appear when Covid-19 struck. Soon things began to spiral out of control with the coronavirus lockdown hitting the economy harder than anyone had anticipated. By March 2020, Indians began to hoard cash again. According to the RBI, people withdrew four times more cash from banks and ATMs in March than they had in previous months in 2019-20. This love of staying liquid indicates a basic distrust in the economic situation, especially with growing unemployment.
So, a lot of the recovery talk will depend on sentiment.
But consumer sentiment is optimistic about future spending, much more in India and China, than other countries, said a new McKinsey report. By October, the festival and wedding season will start in India, which many say will boost the consumption economy — ‘monsoon willing’. But some sectors will take longer to reboot. The fear-factor and social distancing in the low-touch economy will continue to hurt sectors like hospitality, travel, and entertainment industry the most.
Even after some economic activity revives on 20 April in India, the industry will have to go the extra mile in alleviating workers’ fears. Protection protocols will have to be set up for different work settings and factories ring-fenced to control movement of labour.
Public spending to boost consumption
India, with its massive domestic consumption, can hunker down and resolve to boost domestic demand in the coming months. India is not an export-oriented economy anyway.
Modi must put more money in people’s hands by creating more jobs through huge public investment projects that bring about new national assets.
Government spending will be key, and Modi will have to find innovative ways to raise money without fiscal bleeding. A lot will depend on Modi’s nuanced economic leadership in the coming months – something we haven’t seen in the last six years.
Views are personal.