Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Economic Ramblings

Cross posted from my other blog: Lifestyle Investments

Monetary Policy, Fiscal Policy, Inflation, Interest Rates – some of the popular terms any student of Economics will go through, somewhat boringly, in their introductory courses. These concepts when linked to the real world can throw some interesting viewpoints about the various burning issues. In the last 12 months, the central banks/Governments of most countries have, more or less, uniformly and uncharacteristically followed expansive monetary policies to the extent of bringing interest rates close to 0%. This is inline with the Governments’ fiscal policies which are more or less expansive – at least at planning level. An expansive monetary policy and expansive fiscal policy will ring a nice note in one’s ears that things are going fine with the economies. In most cases, this could be true; it may not be so this time around.

If the Governments go for an expansive fiscal policy, the Government will spur spending. For spending, the Government needs money – there are multiple options for the Government to get the money. One, it can print money; two, it can issue bonds and raise debts. The former has its own implications on interest rates and the dreaded fear of deflation resulting in increase of the real cost of borrowing. The latter, however, depends on some other factor so far not mentioned: Debt-to-GDP ratio among other things. The Government’s ability to borrow is inversely proportional to the Debt-to-GDP ratio – less the debt to GDP, the better the borrowing ability of the Government – sounds very intuitive.

There is always a partisan view of the credit rating agencies’ role in the financial world. Irrespective of the side you are in, there is a considerable weight attached to the ratings given out by these agencies. It is only common-sense to believe these agencies downgrade those countries with less borrowing power and less repaying capacity. A very simple indicator of these is the debt-to-GDP ratio. Let us take the case of India. If Debt-to-GDP ratio increases (as this would be most likely the case in the late recession / early recovery stage of the business cycle that we are in; as the GDP would not rise as fast as the rise in debt), the agencies downgrade the ratings of the Government. If this happens, there is a double whammy effect as the existing Government bonds would lose value, investors may begin to dump and the Government would be at a disadvantage at raising money from the markets. Essentially, the market forces would be against an expansive fiscal policy. This is very pertinent in India’s case with a Debt-to-GDP ratio of 58% (compare this to Chinese Debt to GDP ratio of 18%) – so Government may not be able to follow expansive fiscal policy along with an expansive monetary policy.

If it persists with expansive monetary policy in this scenario, there would be too much money chasing too little economic activity, leading to the most commonly known economic term – Inflation. With so much political sense also attached to Inflation, no Government will be willing to let this happen. So, are we heading towards restrictive monetary and restrictive fiscal policies: not likely as this again also has a political and economic cost attached with the R-word and no one wants it. All this means is that the Government has to raise money from somewhere without losing its credit worthiness. The likely sources, I believe, would be PSU divestments, tightening of personal tax regime among other things. All this means is the Government would not be able to undertake a 'market-friendly' budget this time - expect no major tax cuts, duty cuts etc.

The scenario mentioned about India does hold true for developed economies like US (whose monetary policies are more expansive and debt-to-GDP ratio is higher). If China believes the US dollar denominated treasuries are downgradeable, it would be Armageddon – again in 2009. Brace yourself.

No comments: