When will India’s economy recover from its second COVID wave? Economists are split

June 1, 2021, 8:12 AM UTC

India received a sliver of good news on Monday: Its economy shrank less than expected last fiscal year.

According to government figures, the country’s gross domestic product dropped 7.3% in the fiscal year ended in March. In February, officials estimated the economy would contract by 8%.

India published its economic data as it continues to confront a devastating second wave of COVID-19 that has infected millions and killed tens of thousands. Even though the results surpassed expectations, there was little reason to be upbeat: The 7.3% GDP drop is still the worst on record since 1951. The numbers also do not fully account for the second COVID wave that ravaged the country starting at the end of the last fiscal year. In fact, quarterly data for January through March shows the economy grew 1.6% versus the previous year right before the second wave hit.

Economists are now speculating about how India will dig itself out of that hole once the second wave’s economic damage is fully realized.

They estimate that the latest outbreak has pushed back India’s economic recovery by three to six months, depending on the virus’s trajectory and the nation’s preparedness for a possible third wave.

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Since hitting a peak above 400,000 daily cases in early May, the infection rate has dropped to 152,734 per day, and the number of deaths have fallen to around a four-week low of 3,128 daily.

“The delay in economic recovery would be limited to just about a quarter, provided the COVID’s second wave is not allowed to last much beyond June,” said D.K. Srivastava, chief policy adviser at EY India. He said the economic recovery would depend on the pace of vaccination and government policy interventions in the coming weeks and months. India’s Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, has pledged to vaccinate at least all of the adult population by the end of the year, notwithstanding a current supply shortage.

Ranen Banerjee, partner and leader of economic advisory services at accounting firm PwC India, says the second wave will delay India’s economic recovery by six months.

“If we are not hit by any more COVID waves, then we can expect to grow in the range of 9% to 10% this financial year,” Banerjee said. Prior to the second wave of COVID, he had estimated that India’s economy would grow by 11% this year. Still, he says, the second wave’s economic disruption “will not be very severe.”

Despite the surge in COVID cases and deaths, state governments have allowed some factories to stay open, even amid lockdowns, which has blunted any downturn in industrial activity. 

The Narendra Modi administration has resisted declaring a nationwide lockdown during this outbreak partly to spare the economy the harm it endured in the first wave in March 2020, when India enforced one of the world’s strictest sets of restrictions.

Manufacturing and services sector activity held up well in April, Banerjee said, as did other key indicators like electricity consumption. But data for May will be especially telling since it will better reflect the damage done by the second wave.

If the second wave continues to ease, it will spare India’s traditional summer crop sowing season, which takes place during monsoon season, from June to September.

India produced a record crop last year following a bountiful rainy period. The India Meteorological Department has predicted good monsoon rains for the upcoming season too.

Still, the second wave has spread to India’s rural areas, which account for roughly 40% of overall demand for goods and services. “Lots of people have witnessed the second wave, and there is talk of a third wave. You will see an impact on consumer behavior,” said Sunil Sinha, principal economist at India Ratings and Research, a Fitch Group company.

On Monday, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a leading industry body, said a new survey of its members showed that business confidence had plunged to a score of 55.5 after touching a 10-year high of 74.2 in a survey conducted prior to the second wave of COVID in March. Seventy percent of participants in the new survey reported being concerned about weak demand, versus 56% in March. The number of firms expecting better sales in the near term declined to 31% from 66%.

Meanwhile, investors in India’s stock markets remain unfazed by the weak outlook. The benchmark S&P BSE SENSEX on Monday rose by 1% to 51,937,44, the highest since Feb. 17, though the close came before the release of GDP data. On Tuesday, the positive sentiment was undimmed. The index ticked up 0.1% in early trading.

Market observers say the current stock market sentiment is driven by relief over falling COVID cases as well as prospects of a global recovery, which will help Indian exports.

Rumki Majumdar, economist at Deloitte India, was optimistic about India’s economic prospects later this year.

“Economic activity will pick up rapidly in the second half of the financial year,” she said. Factors such as falling infections, a potential increase in the pace of vaccination, and the oncoming festivals in the following months will likely boost consumer and investment spending owing to strong pent-up demand.”

Indian consumers tend to buy more goods starting in September and October, following the harvest of summer crops and as a series of festivals, including Diwali, get underway.

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