The Indian super rich do not seem to have been rattled by the economic slowdown. A resilient plutocracy may be good news for an economy that is showing the first signs of consumer fatigue but it could also lead to political pressures at a time when rural demand seems to be ebbing.
Low salary increases, inflation, job insecurity and struggling investment portfolios have left the super rich relatively untouched. A superb new report by Kotak Wealth Management and Crisil on the 81,000 people living on the top of the pyramid, thanks to incomes of at least Rs3.5 crore a year and an average net worth of Rs 25 crore over the past ten years, shows that the super rich have taken the slowdown in their stride.
What’s more, the next three years will see their numbers and wealth rise. The number of people at the top is expected to triple in the next five years while their collective net worth is expected to go up by five times, the report says.
The spending of the top 0.03% will thus be robust even amid the overall slowdown in the Indian economy, with items such as luxury cars, designer clothes, luxury watches and precious stones likely to see strong demand. Take luxury cars for instance. Auto companies such as Mercedes, BMW and Audi are already seeing strong demand, besides the SUV makers. Their purring luxuries are becoming increasingly common on Indian roads.
The Kotak-Crisil study brings back memories of a series of controversial reports published by Citigroup global strategist Ajay Kapur and his team in 2007, before the financial meltdown in the US and the political backlash against the super rich there. The Citigroup reports made several points, among them the prediction that spending by the super rich can keep consumer demand strong despite economic shocks because the rich have an asymmetrical impact on demand economies with high levels of inequality. Is India headed that way?
It is interesting that the resilience of demand at the top of the income pyramid is evident at the same time when there are fears that rural demand could be ebbing because of the tough times in the farm economy. A recent report by Emkay Global Research says that cash flows in the agriculture sector shrank by 35% in FY12 and could shrink by another 39% in the current fiscal year. The main reasons are excess supply and rising costs, and Emkay believes that even the recent sharp increase in farm support prices will not do enough to improve the situation. The brokerage uses important indicators such as tractor sales, motorcycle sales, GSM telecom connections and bad loans in the books of the State Bank of India to bolster its point.
The big question: if the resilience at the top of the pyramid and the weakness at the bottom of the pyramid persist for another year, will they shape the narrative for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections?