Recently India is going through a mini-crisis where its currency has plummeted and with hosts of other reasons such as high inflation and a dysfunctional government not just because of the ruling party but also because of the opposition. In all this corruption has risen a lot. During the last few weeks, the Reserve Bank of India – the central bank – has tried to fight the depreciation of the rupee by taking various steps but in spite of this, the currency kept depreciating.
Unsurprisingly, a blame game has begun. To some extent it is good. It shows that the subject Economics isn’t what it has pretended to be – else we would never have had these debates. Simon Johnson recently wrote an article India’s Economic Crisis for NYT’s Economix which once again reminded economists of how dangerous the ideology that financial crisis are a thing of the past can be.
Initially some section of the media made it appear as if the Reserve Bank of India governor is blaming it on the “tapering” of the large scale asset purchases of the U.S. Federal Reserve. In fact an RBI release appeared to say it explicitly. But the RBI governor Duvvuri Subbarao has of course clarified saying that it was just a trigger but put the blame on India’s Finance Minister.
Economists seem to blame the Reserve Bank of India (and the supposed “fiscal indiscipline” of the government). According to them the RBI created a panic of sorts by reacting and this exacerbated the pressure on the Indian Rupee. So according to Swaminthan Aiyar, an economist who wrote an article titled India’s Problem Is Exports, Not the Rupee,
A falling rupee is a political, not an economic disaster
How silly can that get. While the title is okay (India needs more exports), but the above slogan just echoes the thought held among economists that the central bank shouldn’t interfere in the currency markets and that somehow the currency may have stabilized. Criticising the Reserve Bank is like criticising someone under attack for trying to defend (but failing to defend properly). It is important to realize that this “there is always a price” notion is an ideology of economists – a depreciation of a currency says something about it acceptability in international markets. So the fear is that the Rupee may become unacceptable in international markets and go to the IMF for help to refinance its international debts and the pound of flesh demanded in return. If the Rupee continues to depreciate, there will be further outflow of foreign funds and domestic banks will come under tremendous pressure in the foreign exchange markets in which they act as dealers. Perhaps Aiyar needs some lessons from Simon Johnson.
Paul Krugman suggests that India’s net international investment position hasn’t deteriorated and wonders what the issue really is. While it is true that India’s NIIP is not as worse as countries such as Hungary, there is no hard and fast rule that minus 20% is good and minus 100% is bad. India’s currency doesn’t have a brand and acceptability in international markets and 20% can be bad considering the direction in which it is headed given the current account deficits.
The silliest thing I heard (saw actually in a Tweet) is: Japan’s currency is depreciating and that is not a crisis but India’s currency is depreciating and that is a crisis – isn’t that self-contradictory? No it isn’t. Japan is a net creditor to the rest of the world and can talk up its currency as fast as it talked down its Yen. Japan is in a position where it instead can boost domestic demand instead of beggaring its neighbours.
There are other blame games as well. There has been a sharp rise in corruption – or perhaps it is more right to say that such cases have come to the limelight while it has always existing at a large scale. So this has caused India’s troubles. Although there is truth to it, this by itself doesn’t cure India’s external problems. Imagine if these problems hadn’t existed and that there was a rapid rise in output (which anyway is not bad compared to the rest of the world). The rise in output would come about with a rise in domestic demand and this would have also led to a rise in imports deteriorating the balance of payments.
One frequent slogan when such troubles arise in the external sector – and which has been repeated recently – is “increase productivity”. While increase in productivity is welcome (so long as it accompanies a rise in production), this is separate from relative competitiveness with the rest of the world. It is true that a rise in productivity can have some effects on competitiveness but the causality is quite different from what economists generally assume. The major cause of rise in productivity is the rise in production itself and if a nation faces a balance of payments constraint, its production is affected because of deflationary means need to be adopted to keep imports in check.
During the financial and economic crisis which began around 2007, India was the among the first nations to boost domestic demand by fiscal policy. India was already a Keynesian when the phrase “we are all Keynesians” became popular. India has done the opposite of the beggar-my-neighbour policies but has run out of steam and it is time the world boosts domestic demand and ease the constraint on the few “emerging markets” in the news.
It is a deep bias in the economics profession that balance of payments imbalances have a self-adjusting market mechanism. In the years of the Bretton-Wood it was thought that the Mundell-Fleming fixed exchange rate models explained how imbalances would self-correct. But this proved to be wrong. After the fall of the Bretton-Woods, when exchange rates floated, it was thought that there is a market mechanism via prices changes (exchange rate) to keep imbalances in check but – with exceptions of a few – economists again failed to notice their bias with their focus being shifted by Milton Friedman’s Monetarism who also hand-waved the “market mechanism” in order to promote free trade. India’s troubles is another reminder of how their intuitions are wrong. Instead of changing it, they simply blame the government.
It is time for the rest of the world to first boost domestic demand so that India’s exports rise to pay for its imports. This is beneficial to the world itself because it will enjoy more imports. Some criticisms of the Indian government are true but this alone is far from sufficient in solving India’s problems. More importantly, there is no market mechanism to resolve imbalances – a drastic change in coordination of fiscal and monetary policies combined with trade policies which are mutually consistent and beneficial are required.