Are our gross domestic product (GDP) numbers credible? Many commentators have expressed their doubts. But no one has yet identified problems with the Central Statistical Organisation’s (CSO) methodology. This is because they have been looking in the wrong place. The problem is not, as many have suspected, in the nominal numbers. It lies in the system for constructing the deflators. This methodology is flawed, yielding exaggerated estimates of the speed at which the economy is growing. As a result, policy decisions such as the Union budget are taken on the basis of a “broken speedometer”.
No one is talking about the deflators, but they are important. That is because the real numbers are derived by taking nominal data on the economy and deflating them by price indices. So, if inflation is understated, then real growth is going to be overstated. And this is what has been happening.
In the latest data released by the CSO we focus on the gross value added (GVA) numbers. This measure is conceptually similar to the old GDP at factor prices. In nominal terms, GVA increased by 7.9% in the third quarter (October-December) of the fiscal year 2015-16, below its usual level of 10-15%. This increase translated into a 7.1% real growth, because the deflator reportedly increased by only 0.7%.
Could India’s inflation be so low? In effect, the CSO is saying that despite India’s booming economy, producer inflation is lower than that of the recession-wracked economies of the West, or even that of Japan, which has been wrestling with deflation since the 1990s (see adjoining chart.) This is not plausible.
How could the CSO have come to such a conclusion? The answer is that in a number of sectors, it has proxied the deflator by using the wholesale price index (WPI). This approach is problematic. For one thing, the WPI and the GVA deflator can move in different directions. To see this, we need to look at value added from the income side. Firms’ value added is paid out to the factors of production, namely labour, land and capital. The biggest share of this income goes to labour, which means that wages form the bulk of the deflator. We do not have good data on wages, but we know that they have been going up. Yet, the WPI has been going down—by 1.5% in the third quarter.
Next, we turn to value added from the production side. When commodity prices decline, the commodity-heavy WPI will decline, as we have just seen. But the GVA deflator will need to increase. This may sound strange, but the reasoning is straightforward. Plunging commodity prices boost firms’ profits, increasing their value added, which is what the nominal GVA measures. But since ‘real’ GVA is measured at constant prices, this increase in nominal GVA needs to be deflated away. Hence, the deflator needs to rise.
In other words, by relying heavily on the WPI, the CSO has been led astray from the true deflator. As a result, the growth estimates have also strayed from reality. Over the past year, the dynamos of the economy—investment and exports—have remained mired in a slump. Yet, according to the CSO, the economy, excluding agriculture and government, expanded by 9.6% in the third quarter. This growth was powered by two sectors—trade and finance—that reportedly grew by around 10%, and one—manufacturing—that grew by 12.6%. In other words, the CSO is telling us that good times are back. But this is not consistent with what we see all around us.
If the WPI is such a poor proxy for the deflator, what numbers should be used in its place? There is no single answer. For the service sectors, one could look at the consumer price index (CPI) for services such as health and education. For manufacturing, one could take the CPI for clothing/footwear and miscellaneous household goods. All of these indices are running at 5-5.75%.
So, let us be conservative and use 5% as the deflator for finance and manufacturing. In that case, financial real GVA would show a growth rate of 2.6% as opposed to the reported 9.9%.
For the manufacturing sector, only 70% of the estimated GVA is derived by deflating the nominal numbers from the corporate sector, while the remaining 30% is based on the Index of Industrial Production. Accordingly, one needs to take 70% of the nominal GVA, deflate it by 5%, then add back the remainder. In that case, real growth of manufacturing GVA comes to 7.7% as opposed to the reported 12.6%.
With these adjustments for finance and manufacturing, keeping the numbers for the other sectors unchanged, we get a real GDP growth rate for the third quarter of 5%. In other words, the economy is struggling, not racing ahead. Now, that seems consistent with what we are seeing.