Since the outbreak of COVID-19, bad news has dogged India on the economic front. By the end of the 2020-21 financial year, which begins on April 1 and ends on March 31, the country’s GDP is estimated to shrink by 7.7%, the biggest contraction since 1952. In the first quarter of the 2020-21 financial year, the economy contracted by a historic 23.9%.
To put things in perspective, India has suffered its first contraction since the 1979-80 financial year. Then, India’s GDP shrunk by 5.2% because of a double whammy. First, the 1979 Iranian Revolution led to a doubling of crude oil prices, hurting an energy importer like India. Second, a severe drought led to crop failure, falling incomes and declining demand. The 2020-21 recession is worse than that of 1979-1980. In fact, India’s contraction is the second-worst in Asia after the Philippines, whose economy has contracted by 8.5%-9.5%.
Green Shoots of Recovery
In 2021, better news has trickled in. India’s manufacturing sector is rebounding. The Nikkei Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, compiled by IHS Markit, rose to 56.4 in December 2020, up from 56.3 in the previous month. Any figure over 50 signals growth, and manufacturing has now been increasing for five months. More importantly, India’s agricultural sector is expanding strongly. In fact, it grew even during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deloitte estimates that “India may have turned toward the road to recovery.” It bases its judgment on recent high-frequency data. India has been fortunate to have lower infection and fatality rates than countries like the US or the UK. It has also launched the world’s biggest coronavirus vaccine drive. This should improve consumer and business confidence and boost economic recovery.
Why Is Foreign Investment Flooding Into India?
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is predicting a return to growth in 2021 as are investment banks and large funds. The Indian government is bullishly claiming that India can achieve double-digit growth through increased digital services and the expansion of its manufacturing base. This would be driven by growing demand in the rural sector, the youth and India’s aspirational middle class.
Even if the government claims might be optimistic, many companies and investors have bought into the India growth story. In particular, sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) have been betting on India. In 2020, they invested a record $14.8 billion in the country. In the same period, they invested only $4.5 billion in China, meaning that SWF investment in India is three times that of China. What is going on?
Dark Clouds in Sunny Skies
To understand why SWFs are turning to India, we have to understand their incentives. These funds do not answer to investors who crave quarterly or yearly or even five-year returns. As custodians of a nation’s wealth, SWFs are long-term investors. In their view, India is operating from a lower base than China. So, India’s growth prospects are higher than China’s as it plays catch-up.
Furthermore, unlike venture capital or private equity players, SWFs place a high premium on the long cycle factors like political stability, social cohesion and geopolitical importance. As a robust democracy with many decades of experience in the peaceful transfer of power, India is increasingly attractive in a volatile, complex and ambiguous world. China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have shaken up many SWFs that are choosing to park their money in India.
There is another reason for SWFs to invest in India. They agree with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, who praised India for taking “very decisive action, very decisive steps to deal with the pandemic and to deal with [its] economic consequences.” Like her, they are impressed by New Delhi’s appetite for structural reforms and the surprising competence India’s much-maligned government has demonstrated during the pandemic.
On December 31, India’s health ministry revealed that the country’s COVID-19 recovery rate was an astonishing 96.04%. This is one of the highest recovery rates in the world. Despite the economic contraction, the government has fed hundreds of millions, brought in much-needed economic reforms and kept the budget deficit down to reasonable levels. At a time when countries have sunk into unsustainable debt traps, India presents a relatively better investment opportunity for SWFs with strong prospects of sustainable, long-term growth.
There are two dark clouds threatening this sunny economic scenario. First, India faces the twin external threat of China and Pakistan. Both these nuclear powers make territorial claims against India. They have been ratcheting up rhetoric, and tensions are running high. Even at the height of a bitterly cold winter, Indian and Chinese troops have clashed yet again on the border. Once the Himalayan snows start melting in late spring and early summer, troops could start clashing and a military conflict might ensue. This would inflict a tremendous economic setback in the short run. If India is able to defend its territory, then its economy would benefit in the long term. However, there is no guarantee how such a conflict might play out, and this remains a great risk to the economy.
Second, India faces the threat of domestic unrest. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has had to deal with numerous protests since its reelection in 2019. The Citizenship Amendment Act triggered protests in many cities across the country. They died down as the pandemic spread. Currently, farmer protests are rocking New Delhi on Republic Day. In a country as large and diverse as India, threats of more protests and unrest are never far away. As long as the government can contain protests, they remain immaterial. However, a breakdown in social cohesion would damage India’s growth story.