Friday, September 14, 2012

FDI in Retail - Why now?

Yesterday the Indian government surprised a lot of people by allowing a 51% FDI in retail. While Congress had wanted to do it for some time now, it had been stopped in the past by its now famous coalition dharma and general public fear of foreign competition. What prompted this policy move now?

Congress has distinctly been a party without an ideology. In Nehruvian times it was a left leaning Fabian socialist party. But there has been clear lack of ideology in last two decades. Since 1991 it has been credited with ushering in economic reforms, ending the licence raj and putting the country on the track of growth. Although it was an act of a desperation once there was no other choice left, congress did not shy in taking credit even for what was thorough capitulation. One would be tempted to think that after such a drastic move   Congress would have aligned itself away from what it stood for in pre-1991 era. But NREGA showed that they are not shy of populist policies. For congress winning the next election is the new ideology. But why then is the Indian junta now supposed to believe the Manmohan Singh rhetoric that "If we are going down, we will go down swinging". Where does this sudden surge in courage come from? Or more importantly what is the strategy behind this move and why is congress willing to risk its government for FDI in retail?

Skeptics might be motivated to find a corruption motive. I do not believe there is any truth in that. This is a no transaction policy decision which is political in nature. It will help congress fare better in the next election. Popular middle class opinion in the nation is emphatically against the congress, but middle class never determines the election in India. It is the poor masses that determine the winner. And for the masses - Inflation is the biggest issue. At the right moment congress can provide some freebies to the masses (like mobile phone or laptop) to sway the opinion or pull out another NREGA like scheme out of the hat. But that won't be sufficient if the inflation that is breaking the poor man's back does not come down. Since inflation in India is structural in nature, this step was required.

Yes, the FDI will bring efficiency in retail, weed out middle man and make thing cheaper for the consumer, but that will take years to happen. This effect will probably not be seen before the 2014 election. Doesn't that defeat the purpose?  How does it help congress in 2014 election then? To understand this you have to understand the root cause of inflation in India and the reason why rupee fell 25% in a short while.

After the NDA was pushed out of power, for a few years the country was on right track of growth and surplus due to a number of reasons. Effect of the infrastructure spending for prior years were showing and the global economy was doing very nicely. In the second term congress was not so lucky. The global economy had plunged into a recession, but effect on India was not so pronounced. The real shocker came later. Monetary policy was accommodating and  government had started the NREGA which was costing the government forty thousand crores every year and was directly released to the poor. Exports were down but domestic consumption was high fueled by the increased money supply through the system. Current account balance crashed, luckily the rupee was saved due to capital account surpluses. Capital account surplus was temporary in nature - Indian corporates were borrowing heavily in US markets in trying to take advantage of record low dollar rates. But the dollar had to be paid back. Current and capital account both turned red and second half of 2011 was mayhem for the rupee as it lost 25% of its value in short time. There is a significant possibility that this trend of high inflation and rupee depreciation would continue in the future.

Given the government deficits and global economic scenario, there were very few options left. Government tried to fix its deficit by raising fuel prices, it helped. But that did not help the Foreign exchange problem. If the economy remains structurally weak and exports fail to pick up, then somehow Dollars have to be arranged to stop the rupee decline. India has to see some foreign investment and corporates are not ready to borrow after being screwed badly. So in another act of desperation congress has decided to allow FDI in retail. The money that will come in will stay in India for long and stabilize the Rupee. It will be a boost to growth and productivity. It will be atleast a decade before Walmart etc. start repatriating anything back home. Then it will be somebody else's problem to plug that hole. For now, congress can again be a hero, but the truth is that if they did not do this now, there would have been nothing left to save. It is a calculated political risk, and a potential masterstroke.