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Modi and his advisers quickly came to understand that a combination of depressed demand in the mature market democracies and robust competition from other low-wage countries had essentially foreclosed the export-driven model of development, as Amy Kazmin and Lionel Barber report in the Financial Times. Instead, Modi reached for a grab bag of reforms and public investment, an approach one of his advisers described as “light many fires at once—to see if any of them would catch.” Modi’s policy mix has indeed succeeded in lighting many fires, though not all of them are burning quite as he might have wished.
It must be said that Modi has achieved some modest successes. His move to overhaul the tax code is a step in the right direction. The previous tax system vested too much power in the state and local levels, such that India’s domestic market was littered with internal trade barriers. The newly instituted VAT promises to facilitate more interstate trade and, hopefully, raise some badly needed revenue for India’s chronically under-resourced central government. In just two years, India’s tax base has increased by 50 percent.
The creation of a streamlined bankruptcy process is another long-overdue reform. An IMF report cited by the Financial Times found that under the old regime, creditors who turned to the courts to settle bankruptcy disputes could expect a process that would take four years to resolve itself and would, on average, end with them writing off three-quarters of the debts they were owed. Though far from perfect, Modi’s new bankruptcy code appears to have leveled the playing field for creditors, which should, in time, make Indian firms more attractive to investors at home and abroad.
The stimulus from these important reforms, however, has been dulled by a simultaneous liquidity contraction provoked by an ill-conceived policy of demonetization. Modi attempted to smoke out nefarious actors who were hoarding their wealth in hard-to-track cash, but instead produced a complicated and protracted financial crisis.
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In November 2016, in characteristically secretive and dramatic style, Modi announced that following a 50-day grace period, the country’s high-denomination bills would be worthless. What happened next was a short-term cash crunch as people took money out from under their proverbial (and sometimes literal) mattresses and poured it into bank deposits and mutual funds. Much of this $220 billion liquidity surge found its way into the hands of shadow banks, which in turn sparked a series of financial ructions that I won’t pretend to fully understand.
On balance, though, Modi has failed to deliver on his promise of faster growth. Under his government, India’s GDP has grown at about 7 percent a year, which looks more like the growth produced by the preceding government than it does the 10 percent average growth China maintained from 1990 to 2010. Moreover, the failure to jump-start manufacturing employment has left the country with an unemployment rate of 7 percent, driven in large part by a 20 percent jobless rate for urban men under 30, a slice of the population not known for its quiescence.