THE new Commerce Minister, Mr Suresh Prabhu, has shown keen interest in reviving exports and is pushing for export-led growth. Many economists have also been commenting on the recent export growth slowdown in India. In July 2017, exports contracted to 3.9 per cent. Indeed, the GDP growth will remain lower than optimum if exports stagnate. Also, one of the main drivers of manufacturing growth has always been a high export growth, but today export-led growth is no longer such an attractive option. In the 1960s and 70s, the Asian Tigers — South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan — transformed their economies rapidly from developing countries to becoming middle-income countries through high export growth, but today the whole global environment has changed.
For example, South Korea was a poor country in the 1950s after the Korean War, but it is now among the developed countries and a member of the OECD which is a big exporter of cars, electronic goods and smartphones.
Initially, through labour-intensive exports like leather goods, it worked its way up, and with the help of transfer of technology from China and Japan, transformed itself into a producer of quality state-of-the-art manufactured goods under the brand names of Samsung, LG and Hyundai that can be found the world over. Its population is only 50 million so the domestic market is not big enough. Like South Korea, others were forced to go for export-led growth due to their small size. They are still reliant on exports, but are facing a slowdown in today’s global climate.
China’s rapid economic growth since 1979 was also export-driven manufacturing growth which was made possible through FDI inflows, mainly from the US. American companies outsourced production to Chinese factories and exported them back to the US. Today, China is facing flak from the US for robbing American jobs and may face trade barriers. Luckily, it has a huge domestic market on which it has decided to concentrate.
The first requirement for export-led growth is an educated and disciplined labour force which is healthy and diligent. All countries that promoted export-led growth invested heavily in human capital and ensured that a regular, cheap food supply and housing were available for the labour force. It requires a very good infrastructure with ports, roads, airports and railways. Unless there is a well-functioning infrastructure, delays in delivery will lead to cancellation of orders. Various trade facilitation measures like easier customs clearances and less paper work and bureaucratic procedures also led to higher export growth. The ‘Tigers’ also ensured that there was below market rate of interest for easy credit. They maintained a stable currency which was not overvalued.
When the Tigers were exporting to the West, there was a huge demand for cheap products. Today, the low labour cost advantage of the Tigers and China is fast eroding with a rise in wages in all these countries. Now, the new destination for foreign investments for setting up shop and seeking cheap labour are smaller ASEAN countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. In garments, the sweatshops of Bangladesh are without parallel and are cutting into India’s garment exports. Yet the conditions of work of the garment workers are deplorable — this was evident in the terrible Rana Plaza disaster, when over 1,100 workers, mostly women, perished.
On the whole, increase in exports through cheap labour by global south and increase in outsourcing has caused resentment in the Western countries because they have led to job losses. As a result, the US is turning protectionist and the EU has in place many barriers to developing countries’ exports. The developed countries are increasingly turning to high-tech to produce cheap consumer goods like bicycles which require fewer workers and are therefore cost effective. American manufactured goods are slowly replacing the cheap imports from developing countries (Trump’s ‘buy American’ is helping).
Global trends are changing rapidly, especially tastes, and this is also causing problems. India’s diamonds exports are not taking off because of change in the preferences of young people today. The millennials don’t seem to care much for diamond jewellery, handicrafts or handlooms. In every Western country, the youth is hooked on branded products. Thus according to experts, Indian goods have to be in the ‘global value chain’ in order to survive competition, but there is a major problem in India because of the nature of production. Many goods in India are produced in the medium and small enterprises and have poor quality control because the labour involved in production lacks adequate training in skills, education, and is less disciplined than in India’s competitor countries. There are other problems also like access to credit, power and water. It is thus very difficult for India to enter the global value chain like other smaller neighbours — Thailand or Sri Lanka, for instance — though we are producing automotive parts and electronic components for multinational companies.
To be in the global value chain requires efficient infrastructure which India is striving hard to acquire. Unable to enter the global value chain in a big way, we are selling mostly raw materials to China, Korea, Japan, and ASEAN comprising of animal feed, agricultural wastes, plastics, aluminium, iron, slag ash, etc. which are bulky, low-value products. We have to improve the quality of products of exports in order to become reliable sources of imports for countries around the globe.
The hardening of the rupee due to the massive inflows of short-term foreign institutional investment (FIIs) recently will also make Mr Prabhu’s task harder because it will make Indian goods more expensive in dollar terms than the competitors. The introduction of GST is creating additional problems for exporters as it is blocking their funds for advance payment of GST which they can claim only later. Previously, they were not required to pay such taxes which also involve additional paperwork. While exports are important for job creation, there are problems of high inventory and lack of new investments and innovations in the export sector that need to be addressed by the minister. A tough task ahead for him!