We are living really hard times. The fear caused by the growing terrorist activities, the distrust of the stranger induced by rising nationalisms and by a propaganda good at riding the wave of growing frustration, the uncertainty caused by the dissolution of our certainties. Many are the reason that keep investors awake and contribute to the current atmosphere of  anxiety and restlessness.

Nevertheless, there is a safe-haven which seems to be insulated by all these factors and that is living the most prosperous period of its history. A tireless nation that continues its seemingly unstoppable growth process. A bright spot of positive two-digit returns in a world of incredibly low yields.  We are talking of course about India, the fastest-growing large economy in today’s world, whose economy grew at an incredible rate of 7.5% in 2015 – faster than the 6.9% growth observed in China, the former leading emergent economy and currently the third largest economy after the US and EU – and is still expected to grow at 6% in 2020.

Since the Republic constitution in 1950, Indian economy was characterized by heavy state regulation and intervention and by protectionist policies that kept it off from the outside world. In 1991, an acute balance of payments crisis – due particularly to the currency devaluation and the high budget deficit – forced the government, led by Narasimha Rao[1], to liberalize the economy moving toward a free-market and capitalist system.

The large population, the bustling manufacturing sector, the high saving rate and the emphasis on foreign trade and direct investment inflows, contributed to a rapid progress, with an incredible average rate of about 5% GDP growth since then. We can easily see how an investment in the Indian stock market made ten years ago, would have more than doubled our investment. Actually, the chart below compares different stock market indices. We can notice at a glance how both the Sensex and the Nifty (indices of the two Indian stock markets), with an average growth rate of 90%, have considerably outperformed the average of emerging markets (given by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index). Only the S&P500, with a return of 67%, has almost kept up with such huge returns.

STOCK Markets

Since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in May 2014 – after a controversial campaign in which the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party focused on fighting corruption and sustaining economic development – we assisted to a progressive liberalization of the economy, mainly aimed at increasing the attractiveness for foreign businesses. The labor market was deregulated (to make it easier for the employers to hire and fire workers and harder for them to form union), corporate taxes and customs duties were lowered, the wealth tax was abolished, digital infrastructure were built – through to the “Digital India” campaign – and more Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) were allowed in areas like Construction Projects, Cable Networks, Agriculture and Plantation and Air Transportation. The shadow economy has been harshly limited by the demonetization of all ₹500 and ₹1,000 banknotes, in order to crack down the financing of terrorist and illegal activities. A new “Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code” has been issued on May 2016. At last, the huge problem of different taxation between different regions –  past cause of confusion and uncertainty – is being solved as today is under review the single biggest tax reform under the ‘Goods and Services Tax’ or GST bill, whose aim is to create a consistent tax structure across the entire country and one single marketplace.

Moreover, the following initiatives were launched: “Make in India”, to encourage foreign companies to manufacture products in India; “Standup India”, to support entrepreneurship among women and SC and ST communities (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes); “Startup India”, aimed at promoting bank financing for start-up ventures to encourage entrepreneurship and jobs creation. Large investments have been made in Africa in sector as energy, mining and infrastructure, with the main purpose to reduce the dependence on imported goods such as oil, coal and gold (almost 50% of Indian overall imports).

Furthermore, Modi achieved a drastic reduction of the budgetary deficit – from more than 4% to 3% – at the expense of the funds invested in environmental and social programs as poverty reduction, family, healthcare and education (reduced by almost 15%). As a result, we assisted to an enlargement of inequalities in income distribution[2], mainly because rising inequalities between urban and rural areas.

The economy was spurred even more by the consecutive rate cuts pursued by the Reserve Bank of India, as a response to the preoccupant level of inflation observed at the end of 2013, which reached the peak of 11.5%. The repo rate was lowered from 8% to 6.25% in less than two years.

The measures achieved soon the expected results, boosting the economy (GDP grew at the incredible rate of 7,5% after Modi’s first year as prime minister) and increasing much the attractiveness for foreign companies. The amount of Foreign Direct Investments jumped from $34 billion in 2014 to $44 billion in 2015[3], the unemployment rate dropped to 6.3% in 2016, the time required to start a new business dropped from 33 days to the current 26. Therefore, the IPO activity is expected to rise by more than 40%, while M&A activity should more than double in 2019, above all in sectors as financials, consumer and healthcare. Among the countries with the largest share of FDI inflows to India we can find in first position Singapore, followed by Mauritius Islands and United States. Among the European countries, Netherlands is first in rank, followed by Germany (whose car manufacturers are outsourcing part of the production), UK and France. The main reason behind the huge amount of FDI from Mauritius Islands and Cyprus is the low taxation of these two countries – considered tax heaven – which induced many Europe and US based companies to route their investments into India through these countries, deriving double tax avoidance and tax evasion. By the way, with the renegotiation of the double taxation avoidance agreement (DTAA) with India, this phenomenon is likely to decrease soon.

There are other positive factors behind the Indian growth that justify good expectations. Differently from China, Indian growth has been sustained above all by its internal consumption and a fast-growing middle class[4]. Moreover, we can consider such growth as approximately unleveraged[5]. Therefore, the country can easily increase its debt issuance in the near future, especially considering the high rating of BBB- confirmed by Fitch last summer. Third, the expansion has been demographically propelled. Today, India has still a population growth rate of 1,26%[6], thus by 2050 India’s workforce (people between 15 and 59 years old) is expected to have grown from the current 674 million to a staggering 940 million. On the contrary, China is likely to be facing a shrinking workforce, which will potentially drive up labor costs, undermining its competitiveness against other cheap-labor countries. As a matter of fact, India is already much cheaper with an average hourly rate of only 0,48$ per hour[7], largely due to the very low level of gross domestic product per capita[8]. We have to consider also its people’s ability to speak English and its large pool of computer engineering graduates, which make India a popular destination for outsourcing activities.

As we could see, with the advent of N. Modi as prime minister, many are the initiatives carried forward to increase the attractiveness of India. The results so far are extraordinary and India can really overtake the US as the world’s second largest economy by 2050 according to a recent report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC).

Nevertheless, many challenges are still ahead. The education sector needs to dramatically improve its quality. Considering the future increase in population, the push to allow more private universities and to allow foreign universities to operate in India will strengthen.

Another crucial point is the delay in the spread of Internet and the smartphones. From this point of view, China has a great advantage against its rival. Since 2013, the Chinese have consistently reported rates of internet and smartphone use that are at least triple that of Indians (71% of Chinese adults report using internet occasionally, against the 21% Indians). The gap is similarly large when it comes to social media use[9].

Much will depend also on the foreign policy that could be pursued under Trump’s presidency, as the US, second largest trading partner of India, count for more than the 15% of Indian exports[10].

Last but not least, the conditions of women are still far by those of civilized countries. Although the Supreme Court of India said that ‘equal pay for equal’ work is an unambiguous constitutional right, the implementation is resulting very difficult[11].

The world is changing fast. Everything seems to be uncertain and unpredictable. One thing is certain, India will not stand by but it will play a leading role.

AUTHOR: Niccolò Ricci

[1] Narasimha Rao was an Indian lawyer and politician who served as the 9th Prime Minister of India, from 1991–1996.

[2] The income inequality reached the worrying level of more than 50% according to the Gini Index. Only China had greater inequality at that time.

[3] An impressive increase of almost 30%! India is currently the first country for FDI after China and US. World Bank Data.

[4] India is ranked 128th according to the Index of Economic Freedom , meaning that the country is less dependent on the external demand and thus more insulated by global evolutions.

[5] Indeed, in 2015 domestic credit to the private sector (percentage of GDP) stood at 52.6 per cent for India, compared to 153.3 per cent for China. Also the government debt is very moderate, with a ratio of roughly 70%.

[6] Well above the rate of China (0,52%) and aligned to those of most African countries, despite the higher degree of development.

[7] “Countries with the cheapest labor”, The Richest. The cheapest country in the world is Madagascar (0.18$ per hour), followed by Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ghana and Vietnam.

[8] India is ranked only 122nd globally (about 6.000$ per person, against an average of 15.000$), World Bank Data.

[9] According to the Spring 2016 Global Attitude Survey, by PEW Research (www.pewresearch.org).

[10] China is the largest trading partner of India, followed by USA, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland. Department of Commerce of India.

On the other hand, India is the main counterparty of Buthan, Guinea-Bissau, Nepal and Afghanistan. CIA World Factbook, 2015.

[11] According to the Gender Gap Index 2015, set by the World Economic Forum, India is ranked only 108th. Iceland leads this special rank.

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