Rural sentiments are volatile but they matter

Mahesh Vyas
The RBI's Consumer Confidence Survey shows that employment conditions in urban India worsened sharply following demonetisation and the condition has not improved since then. Since the December 2016 survey, 39 per cent of the respondents have been saying that the employment conditions have worsened compared to a year ago. This ratio had never touched 39 per cent before. In fact, the past average was close to 30 per cent. Therefore, this is a sharp jump in the proportion of respondents saying that the job market has worsened.

The RBI's survey is limited to only six cities. But, its results are in sync with what we have been observing in the BSE-CMIE unemployment measure. We have reported the same phenomenon in the form of a consistently falling labour participation rate in urban India. The BSE-CMIE covers over 320 cities and towns of all sizes. It is therefore more representative of urban India. It shows that the labour participation rate in urban India fell from 45 per cent in October 2016 to 41 per cent in May 2017.

Labour conditions in rural India are relatively stable because agriculture and related activities provide low-productivity jobs to many through the year. But, consumer sentiments are quite volatile here. RBI's consumer confidence surveys do not cover rural India. But, its monetary policy statement mentions ''fire sales'' during the demonetisation period.

The BSE-CMIE-UMich surveys include responses from over 3,000 villages. Nearly two hundred villages are surveyed every week and these provide insights into the wild fluctuations in rural sentiments.

In general, rural consumer sentiments have been better than urban sentiments. Yet, rural India was up in anger in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and to a lesser extent in Haryana and Gujarat during the past week.

Farmers in Nashik-Ahmednagar in Maharashtra and in Mandsaur-Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh have been agitating since early June. The immediate reason for the agitation is a sharp fall in prices for agricultural products following a bumper kharif crop. Onions, soyabean and arhar are the major crops that caused the stress. While supplies flooded markets, demand was subdued because of low availability of cash. Excessive supplies and poor demand led to market prices crashing far below government-announced minimum support prices.

The BSE-CMIE-UMich consumer sentiments indices captured this very well. Rural sentiments rose during November and December as the kharif crop output turned out to be very good. Then, by January 2017 when the cash-crunch caused by demonetisation played out fully to bring prices crashing, the rural sentiments came tumbling down.

However, the demand by the agitators is for loan waivers and a lot more. Maharashtra's partial loan waiver announced on June 3 did not help. The government was forced to extend this to total loan waiver on June 11. Madhya Pradesh announced that it would make purchases of agricultural products to ensure that agriculture remains profitable to the farmer. Uttar Pradesh has asked banks not to send notices to farmers to service their loans till it organises funds for the promised loan-waiver.

It is clear that state governments are ruining their finances, their markets for agricultural products and also markets for credit.

It is also clear that the farming sector, and by extension the rural sector, is succeeding in wresting favours from a hapless government. This is a battle of nerves with wide implications. Agriculture is a risky business. As a result, rural consumer sentiments are a lot more volatile compared to urban consumer sentiments.

A good crop and the ability to wield political power has kept rural sentiments high in the past. The rural index of consumer sentiments has been 4.4 per cent higher than the urban index. However, it is 1.6 times more volatile. This has implications on rural demand, in particular, the sustainability of rural demand.

During the week ended June 11, the rural index of consumer sentiments fell by 2.3 per cent after having fallen by 9.2 per cent in the previous week. It could well recover the lost ground quickly in the coming week as Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have made generous concessions to the farm sector.

Rural sentiments matter. They matter because rural India is big and its sentiments are volatile. Tracking rural consumer sentiments is important for state governments to be alerted of the angst as much as it is important for consumer goods companies to anticipate demand and reduce the risks associated with its volatility.

 

Methodology

Consumer sentiment indices and unemployment rate are generated from CMIE's Consumer Pyramids survey machinery. The weekly estimates are based on a sample size of about 6,500 households and about 17,000 individuals who are more than 14 years of age. The sample changes every week but repeats after 16 weeks with a scheduled replenishment and enhancement every year. The overall sample size run over a wave of 16 weeks is 158,624 households. The sample design is of multi-stratrification to select primary sampling units and simple random selection of the ultimate sampling units, which are the households.

The Consumer Sentiment index is based on responses to five questions on the lines of the Surveys of Consumers conducted by University of Michigan in the US. The five questions seek a household's views on its well-being compared to a year earlier, its expectation of its well-being a year later, its view regarding the economic conditions in the coming one year, its view regarding the general trend of the economy over the next five years, and finally its view whether this is a good time to buy consumer durables.

The unemployment rate is computed on a current daily basis. A person is considered unemployed if she states that she is unemployed, is willing to work and is actively looking for a job. Labour force is the sum of all unemployed and employed persons above the age of 14 years. The unemployment rate is the ratio of the unemployed to the total labour force.

All estimations are made using Thomas Lumley's R package, survey. For full details on methodology, please visit CMIE India Unemployment data and CMIE India Consumer Sentiment.

The creation of these indices and their public dissemination is supported by BSE. University of Michigan is a partner in the creation of the consumer sentiment indices.


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