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Why India's labourers can't afford to buy a packet of biscuits for Rs 5

When snack makers start to lament that Indians can’t afford to spend 5 rupees (7 cents) on biscuits, it’s time to stop arguing over how much of the nation’s slowdown is cyclical and what part is structural.

Considering its glaring income, wealth and consumption inequalities, India is a surprisingly calm society. However, when purchasing power dries up to the extent that rural laborers and urban blue-collar workers have to think twice about cheap munchies, then the situation is desperate. The culprit is deep-rooted wage suppression, a long-term issue that needs attention.

Britannia Industries Ltd., the No. 1 Indian biscuit maker, recently sounded alarm bells over the sharp deceleration in its domestic sales volumes. Rival Parle Products Pvt. chimed in and said jobs were at risk for as many as 10,000 of its workers.

A Parle executive blamed India’s 2017 goods and services tax, or GST. While the consumption tax may indeed have been an additional burden in an economy slowing under a disastrous November 2016 currency ban, the funk has its roots in insufficient wages. In recent years, only about a third of the economy’s income has gone to labor, with providers of debt and equity capital taking the rest, according to India Ratings and Research Pvt., a unit of Fitch Ratings.

Raising that 33.2% labor share to the developing-country average of 37.4% would put an extra $100 billion of annual spending power in the hands of Indian households.

Only then can India start facing up to the tougher challenge of reaching advanced-economy levels. It has a long way to go. The labor share of income in the U.S. was almost 57% in 2016, even after a near 10-percentage-point drop following World War II that was caused by technological changes and globalization, according to McKinsey & Co.

ALSO READ: Economic growth problem: It's time now for Modi-II to undo the damage

Trouble is, the distribution of the Indian economic pie is more lopsided than the aggregate numbers suggest. As India Ratings’ analysis shows, 80% of the output generated in informal production gets used up in paying for capital, which is scarce; households get only 20% in exchange for toiling on farms and in cottage industries.

At the same time, only 32% of the production of a bloated public sector is shared with the taxpayers and banks that provide the capital; as much as 68% goes to a privileged group of state and quasi-state workers who enjoy assured jobs and higher pay than they would in the private sector.

The long-overdue privatization of inefficient behemoths like Air India Ltd. would reduce the wastage of capital in the public sector. But it won’t automatically help informal private businesses grow and become productive. In its first term, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi thought taxation would provide the required nudge. It set out to formalize entire supply chains by bringing even small firms under the ambit of the GST.

ALSO READ: Moody's cuts India's GDP growth to 6.2% for 2019 amid economic slowdown

The poorly designed, badly implemented plan backfired. Two years later, New Delhi is furious that it can’t meet revenue targets; its frustration is leading to an antagonistic stance toward firms. Meanwhile, industries from autos to biscuits are demanding lower GST rates.

There’s no fiscal room to please all. The government hit the brakes on its own investments in the June quarter, amid an extended slump in private capital expenditure.Taxes aren't the solution. Easier hiring-and-firing norms – and not mere consolidation of archaic labor laws – will boost employment in more productive large firms that can pay better. If Amazon.com Inc. can build its largest global center in India, why should factories be afraid to scale up by hiring blue-collar workers? At the other end of the spectrum, small firms need finance.

A yearlong liquidity crunch in the shadow banking industry has caused jitters in India’s market for loans-against-property, which is how midsize businesses finance themselves. But even the luxury of a $25,000 loan obtained by mortgaging property worth $350,000 isn’t for everyone, as Pratibha Chhabra, a financial inclusion specialist at the World Bank, notes. Most small firms only have inventory and invoices to pledge, and no lender wants to be left holding half-made chairs, or potatoes rotting in a warehouse.

However, if a bank lending to a furniture maker or a potato farmer in India can get repaid directly by Ikea or PepisCo Inc. against certified invoices, it can share the benefit of the final customer’s creditworthiness with the borrowers. This is how Citigroup Inc. greases the global supply chain of 700 multinationals and their 70,000 vendors. Since most tiny businesses run on household labor, only statisticians will worry about whether wages or profits are getting the lift. Spending power in the economy will rise.

Such financing is well established in developed markets, though in India “to efficiently finance small firms by locating them in larger supply chains will be the next frontier,” says Gaurav Arora, head of Asia Pacific at Greenwich Associates LLC.

India is overdependent on Bangladesh’s model of microfinance, which uses group pressure and social shame to collect on exorbitantly priced – but collateral-free – small loans. The country is barking up the wrong tree. A woman doing embroidery on a sari will never get more than a fraction of what her craft will ultimately sell for. But she can be given access to cheap credit. Then, she’ll also be able to buy more biscuits for her children.

To contact the author of this story: Andy Mukherjee at amukherjee@bloomberg.net

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He previously was a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.

©2019Bloomberg

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