“Demand has fallen by 50% since last month. The restaurants there still have a lot of stock of seafood,” says Patnaik. What’s adding to his woes are some of his shipments of fish and shrimp lying unclaimed at ports and his payments being delayed. “Around $15-16 million is stuck.”
With the easing of restrictions on some commercial activities from April 20, Patnaik has reopened one of his five processing plants across Odisha and West Bengal. He will open two more in early May but will operate them at a quarter of their capacity, one key reason for which is the lack of takers for products. “This year is ruined. We are now thinking how to minimise our losses.”
Patnaik’s problems reflect the worries of Indian exporters at large. While the limitations on manufacturing are likely to be gradually lifted in the coming weeks, if the slowing growth of infections in India holds, exporters have to brace for a steep fall in demand as the largest of India’s trading partners face a crippling recession.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the global economy could shrink by 3% in 2020. The US, which accounted for a sixth of India’s merchandise exports in 2018-19, could see its gross domestic product falling by nearly 6%. Among the large economies, only India and China are expected to grow, at 1.9% and 1.2%, respectively, though the figures are much lower than in 2019.
The outlook for trading between countries is particularly grim. Global trade by volume could decline 13-32% in 2020, under two potential scenarios, according to projections by the World Trade Organization (WTO). Exports from Asia may see an even steeper fall— 14-36%.
The WTO believes a strong rebound is more likely if the pandemic is viewed as a temporary shock. “In this case, spending on investment goods and consumer durables could resume at close to previous levels once the crisis abates.” But at the same time, if the pandemic lasts longer and economic uncertainty persists, companies and households will be more circumspect.
The dollar value of exports from India in March fell by 35% to $21.4 billion (`1.6 trillion) from the year-ago period, according to provisional data from the ministry of commerce. In 2019-20, it fell by 5% to $314 billion (`22.3 trillion).
“Growth in India’s exports will depend a lot on how other countries ease restrictions, including on entry of ships,” says Madan Sabnavis, chief economist at Care Ratings, a credit-rating agency. Given the alarming rate at which jobs are being lost, even after there is a semblance of normalcy, demand for a range of products across the world will continue to be weak.
India is a relative minnow in inter-country trading, responsible for less than 2% of global merchandise exports in 2019, according to the WTO. But more than a tenth of India’s economic output comes from exports of goods (with another 7% from services), underscoring its importance. Worsening Indian exporters’ chances of recovery is the fact that China, where Covid-19 originated back in December, has already restarted its factories. China is the world’s largest exporter, accounting for over 16% of global merchandise exports.
Global companies have diversified supply chains for their requirements, says Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit, a provider of business data. “If India’s lockdown is protracted, some multinationals may shift orders for critical inputs to countries which have resumed normal industrial production, such as China, South Korea and Vietnam,” he says.
That’s why Ravinder Verma, a yarn exporter in Ludhiana, is apprehensive about his near-term prospects. He hopes his customers in around 50 countries have not yet turned to his competitors in China to make up for his inability to service them. “India had just started taking advantage of the USChina trade war before the crisis. Now we have lost it,” says Verma. The trade spat had led to the US and China levying tariffs on imports from each other, benefiting other exporting countries. Orders could eventually flow back to India once normal operations resume, hopes Biswas.
But the big question is, how long before that happens?
No Relief for Exporters
Ajay Sahai, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations, believes India has also been put at a disadvantage by countries like China and Bangladesh providing relief to their exporters, something India has not done so far.
China has raised tax rebates on exports of nearly 1,500 products and Bangladesh has announced a $600 million stimulus package, including cheap loans, for export-oriented sectors. “We also need to provide credit support to our exporters,” says Sahai.
Apparel makers in India will have a lot to lose from China’s and Bangladesh’s decisions to help their exporters, since these two countries are the world’s top producers of garments. “We have to send bulk samples by the end of June for orders to be fulfilled in December. Otherwise, our competitors will get those orders,” says Raja Shanmugam, president of the Tiruppur Exporters’ Association.
Though manufacturing units in special economic zones and rural areas are now allowed to operate, with conditions in parts of the country where Covid-19 infections are not high, according to the Centre’s guidelines, some states like Telangana have decided not to make any concessions.
Sharad Kumar Saraf, managing director of Technocraft Industries, an exporter of drum-lid caps, scaffolding and textiles, says the government has to balance lives and livelihoods. “You cannot throttle the economy,” he says. Even after a manufacturing unit resumes operations, it could be forced to shut again if new Covid-19 cases are reported in that area. Three of Technocraft’s four plants near Mumbai are still shut, with the last one operating at a fourth of its capacity.
There have been calls from the industry to allow manufacturing plants to operate with reduced number of workers and safety precautions. “If we take a wait-andwatch approach to ending the lockdown, the damage will be severe,” says Shanmugam. The national lockdown has led to a loss of 140 million jobs, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
For now, countries are expected to bounce back sharply in 2021. The IMF expects the global economy to expand by 5.8% in 2021. “If the pandemic is brought under control and trade starts to expand again, most regions could record double-digit rebounds (in trade volume) in 2021 of around 21% in the optimistic scenario and 24% in the pessimistic scenario — albeit from a much lower base,” according to the WTO.
Biswas expects the global recovery to be staggered as different countries recover from the pandemic at different times. “China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have already managed to contain their domestic epidemics, allowing resumption of domestic economic activity during Q2 2020.” He expects the US and EU economies to start showing improvements only in the third quarter.
As far as exports of services are concerned, there may not be much to look forward to in air travel and tourism, but information technology and business process outsourcing services could do much better. India’s services exports rose 4% to $214 billion in the last financial year.
Riding out the next two quarters could be an arduous task for large corporations, leave alone thousands of small enterprises. But a lot of them, including those heavily dependent on exports, will survive the crisis if the government throws them a lifeline sooner than later.