Home / Opinion / Online Views /  GDP growth improves a tiny bit, aided by smoke and mirrors

Has the economy turned the corner? That’s the big question the gross domestic product (GDP) numbers were supposed to answer. Has it indeed bounced off a bottom? At first glance, the answer to that question seems to entirely depend on your measuring rod. For instance, if we take the quarterly estimates of GDP at 2004-05 market prices from the expenditure side, we find real GDP growth was 3.4% in the June quarter, 2.5% in the September quarter, 4.1% in the December quarter, and 3% in the March quarter. By that yardstick, the economy hit a bottom in the September quarter of 2012-13, bounced back in the next, and then fell back again in the March quarter. The rather dubious consolation is that this yardstick is well known to be dodgy and the credibility of the expenditure-side GDP figures is rather low.

Going back to the more credible GDP data at factor cost, we find growth was 4.8% in the March quarter, a mite higher than the nadir of 4.7% reached in the preceding quarter. That would indicate that the economy has indeed bounced off a bottom, a very weak bounce, more of a twitch really.

The problem, as usual, lies in the base effect. It’s true that real GDP growth at factor cost was 4.7% in the third quarter and 4.8% in the fourth quarter compared with a year ago. That 4.7% growth was on top of 6% growth in the third quarter of 2011-12, while the 4.8% growth was on top of a much-lower 5.1% growth in the fourth quarter of 2011-12. Even the feeble bounce was entirely statistical.

The same holds true for several of the sectors. Growth in manufacturing, for example, has moved up slowly and steadily from minus 1% in the first quarter of 2012-13 to 2.6% in the fourth quarter. That looks like a decent recovery. The problem is that in the first quarter of 2011-12, manufacturing growth was 7.4% and it was a mere 0.1% in the fourth quarter of that year. In short, the entire credit for the growth in manufacturing goes to the base effect.

On the other hand, there are several sectors that have done badly in spite of a favourable base effect. Consider electricity, gas and water supply, whose growth rate has gone down from 4.5% in the third quarter of 2012-13 to 2.8% in the fourth, although growth in this sector in Q4 of the previous year was much lower than in Q3 that year. This clearly shows the impact of supply-side problems in the power sector. Similarly, growth in trade, hotels, transport and communication slackened a bit in the fourth quarter compared with the third, despite a favourable base effect. Community, social and personal services, a proxy for government expenditure, unsurprisingly saw tepid growth as the fiscal deficit came down.

How much did the different sectors of the economy contribute to GDP growth in 2012-13? As much as 35% of the growth was generated by the trade, hotels, transport and communication sector, closely followed by financing, insurance, real estate and business services, which accounted for 31.3%. The community, social and personal services segment contributed 16.8% of the growth. It means these three service sectors contributed a huge 83.1% to growth last fiscal year.

Contrast the miserable performance of manufacturing, which accounted for a mere 3.3% of growth. The construction sector contributed more than double that. As a matter of fact, agriculture, forestry and fishing generated 5.4% of last year’s growth, more than the share of manufacturing. The contribution of the mining sector was negative, because of the court-directed closure of mines. The chart shows the contribution from the different sectors. Clearly, mining is the weakest link, closely followed by manufacturing.

The Central Statistical Organisation also seems to have been bang on target with its estimate of 5% real GDP growth at factor cost for 2012-13. A closer examination shows, however, that it had overestimated growth in manufacturing, mining, electricity, gas and water supply and, to a minor extent, in community, social and personal services, and underestimated growth in trade, hotels, transport and communication. That the overall growth rate came out exactly as it predicted can be attributed to an extraordinary stroke of luck.

In sum, the fourth-quarter GDP numbers do not suggest any turnaround for the Indian economy. Better luck next quarter.

Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets. Your comments are welcome at capitalaccount@livemint.com

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