Non-financial listed companies have shown an interesting combination of -9.2 per cent sales growth, but 41 per cent profit growth. Perhaps these firms had sharply pulled back on expenses, perhaps they had expected India’s encounter with Covid-19 to be worse than what actually happened, and this has generated a surprising and highly positive result. This performance on profit will do a lot to bring back a skip in the step for the leadership of large firms. It is, however, bracing to see that the top-line shrank by 9.2 per cent nominal, which is consistent with the 13 per cent decline in government tax collections. Bank credit growth is also negative in real terms, but this may reflect the sustained difficulties of Indian banking in the period after 2012, rather than demand for credit from firms and individuals.
Looking forward, a key question lies in the extent to which some firms are able to distil the experience of the pandemic into permanent productivity gains. Will we really go back to working in offices as before? Will we go back from a shop floor managed through a computer screen, to casual conversations on a shop floor? Once new management techniques have been perfected for the work from home (WFH) environment of 2020, many firms may not return to their old ways. For many firms, production levels of a year ago are now feasible at a structurally lower expenditure profile. The firms that make greater progress on modified processes in 2020, will create intense competitive pressure upon their rivals who do not.
Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
If this high level of profit is maintained for the October-November-December quarter, we may expect firms to start coming back to normalcy on discretionary expenses in early 2021. In this happy scenario, the stock of private projects under implementation (which has the latest value of -5.5 per cent growth for September) could come back to positive values by March 2021.
Growth is visible in exports. The world economy is coming back and Indian exporters are getting orders. In contrast, imports growth remains in negative territory. Ordinarily, the import of raw materials in this month would have gone into exports of the next month, so export-linked imports would have fuelled better performance of imports. The negative values for the growth of imports suggest that this aspect is swamped by sluggishness in domestic demand, which is consistent with the picture seen in -9.2 per cent sales growth.
There is a sense of recovery in the change from September to October in electricity generation (which went from 4.77 per cent to 8.88 per cent), the consumption of petroleum products (-4.32 per cent to 2.5 per cent) and imports (-12.17 per cent to -4.59 per cent). If this momentum is maintained, output in October-November-December will work out pretty well.
There are lead/lag relationships between profit, employment and investment. Firms tend to first achieve sustained profits, then add workers to existing production facilities to cope with the first tendrils of sales growth, and only embark on investment, when sustained growth of sales is quite likely and existing production lines are fully utilised. By this reasoning, the recovery of employment comes before the recovery of investment.
The number of employed persons is about two per cent down compared with a year ago. Firms are generally loath to recruit until existing employees are fully utilised (and the observed decline in jobs is biased by workers with high firm-specific capital who were not sacked, who are likely to be under-utilised at 9.2 per cent lower sales). In addition, the productivity gains of 2020 imply that the output of 2019 can be replicated with fewer employees. We need to debate: When sales growth comes back to zero per cent YoY, how many fewer jobs will the economy have? These concerns are probably reflected in consumer sentiments. The value for September was 58 per cent down compared with last year, and there was a small gain to 51 per cent down in October.
It is easy to decry the 41-per-cent growth in profit when juxtaposed against the 51 per cent decline in consumer sentiment, coupled with sluggish growth in the number of employed persons. But we should see the various elements of the market economy are deeply interconnected. The only path to recovery of the economy lies in profit growth that triggers off employment growth, and finally investment. The most important good news from the July-August-September quarter is that non-financial listed companies did well on profit.