Modi’s ‘stay at home’ call may deepen India’s economic slowdown

By Vrishti Beniwal

India’s economy, already in the grip of a slowdown, is in for more pain after Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to citizens to stay at and work from home to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

The services sector, which accounts for about 55% of India’s gross domestic product, is poised to be the worst hit after Modi, in a late evening address on Thursday, urged citizens to go on a self-imposed curfew for a day and private companies to allow employees to work from home for longer. In the country’s vast informal sector, social-distancing measures could mean a dent to productivity and consumption because of job or pay losses.

“The impact of a partial lock-down or social distancing will be significant,” said Rahul Bajoria, a senior economist at Barclays Plc in Mumbai. “If there’s a widespread community outbreak, GDP could fall as low as 3.5% in the year starting April 1.”

Shrinking output may limit growth in an economy that’s already set to expand at an 11-year low of 5% in the current year to March 31. Before the virus outbreak, India had forecast growth to recover to 6%-6.5% in the next fiscal year. S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings have already slashed their growth forecast by 50 basis points.

“The current social-distancing measures will severely impact airlines, hotels, malls, multiplexes, restaurants and retailers,” according to analysts at Crisil Ltd., the local unit of S&P Global. “Lower footfalls and occupancies, decline in business volume and sub-optimal operating efficiencies will impact cash flows of companies in these sectors,” wrote the analysts led by Chief Economist Dharmakirti Joshi.

The government will try to announce a relief package for virus-affected sectors as early as possible, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said Friday.

In a televised address, Modi advised all citizens to stay at home for a day on March 22, as he sought to stem the spread of the coronavirus — cases of which are relatively low in India at about 200, compared with more than 200,000 infected people globally. His government also barred incoming flights for a week from that day, joining a growing list of countries effectively sealing their borders.

What Bloomberg’s economists say

We had only earlier this week lowered our GDP outlook to consider the direct impact of the local outbreak as confirmed virus cases exceeded 100 as of March 15 and the federal and state governments announced social distancing measures that have already started to crimp economic activity. We are now revising down our GDP estimate for 4Q fiscal 2020 to 3.3%, from our 3.5%.

— Abhishek Gupta, India economist

“Consumption being the biggest component of GDP, a lock-down is bound to have a big impact on the economy,” said Devendra Kumar Pant, chief economist at India Ratings and Research, the local unit of Fitch. “Modeling uncertainty in any system will be very difficult, but one can say the slowdown could deepen or prolong further.”

While companies, including billionaire Mukesh Ambani-controlled Reliance Industries Ltd., are asking employees to work from home, the option isn’t feasible in India’s vast informal sector.

“The option to work remotely simply won’t exist for most,” said Shilan Shah, an economist with Capital Economics Pte. in Singapore.

As many households don’t have savings buffers, the government would probably have to back this up with large-scale cash handouts that reach the poorest, he said.

Work from home is posing implementation challenges for the manufacturing sector where workers are required to be physically present at the production sites. The services sector, such as banking and information technology, also needs employees to be present in offices as confidential data is used, according to industry group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

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