It seems to be the season of bad news. Here, here, here, here and here with some honourable exceptions here and here, various sectors of industry led by the automobile sector seem to be facing slow or negative growth in the last financial year. What sense do we make of these disparate bits of data coming from different corners of the market?
Why are auto sales falling?
Before answering this question, it is important to understand that what we are witnessing is a broadbased fall in sales across the automobile industry, not just in one or two firms. This means that people have, in general, chosen not to buy new automobiles, which in turn means that they have chosen to retain their existing mode of transportation, which could be private or public transportation.
Second, a significant proportion of automobile purchases (2 and 4 wheelers) in India happens with a bank financing the purchase, usually paying a large chunk (70-80%) of the price. The buyer of the automobile pays for it on a 3-5 year EMI schedule. That people are not ready to borrow in order to finance automobile purchases indicates that either funding is not available as easily as before or has become too costly, or the borrowers perceive greater uncertainty regarding their future income and are therefore reluctant to take up the responsibility of paying for a new vehicle under a scheme of EMIs.
So, if automobile sales are indeed falling, it must be a combination of these factors
1. People choosing to retain existing modes of transportation
2. Funding not as easily available as before
3. People not ready to borrow now and pay EMI later due to fundamental uncertainty over their own income
that underlies the problem. But then that raises the further question of why such an outcome should occur, that too across the entire automobile industry after so many years of spectacular, non-stop growth? The answer lies not in an analysis of the automobile industry and its markets but in understanding the broader economic climate in which the auto industry currently operates.
The economic climate
Since 2007, the global economy and the Indian economy along with it have been muddling through what is today called The Great Recession and is being recognised as one of the longest periods of economic growth challenges since the Great Depression. On paper, the recession started in December of 2007 and while there are debates about the official end date, the problems that started in 2007 are far from over. Every now and then, a new crisis pops up and there is a mad scramble to contain it. It was Greece a few months ago and it is Cyprus now. Heaven knows what it will be in the near and distant future.
Like any depression, The Great Recession is just a period of correction that consists of identification of a cluster of entrepreneurial error. In simple terms, a large number of businesses suddenly and surprisingly find that they are and have been producing things that people do not need and are therefore staring at deep losses and capital erosion. As Austrian Business Cycle Theory explains, this cluster of errors is created during the preceding inflationary boom (in this case by the boom of 2001-2007) and is caused by a combination of misleading interest rate signals given to producers, credit injection into the production system and monetary inflation, causing intertemporal discoordination, i.e., a mismatch between consumers’ consumption decisions and producers’ corresponding production decisions.
That producers en masse suddenly find far fewer takers for their goods, as automobile manufacturers currently do, is a result of this intertemporal discoordination. When this happens, what a sensible producer should do is to understand the economic climate, try to develop a better forecast of what the future, medium and long-term, is likely to look like and adjust production decisions accordingly. This could mean, in some cases, producing less of the good. It could even mean completely ending certain lines of production, i.e., shutting down certain businesses.
Such decisions are usually accompanied by a lot of pain as many people are put out of employment and, in many cases, will need to reskill themselves to the requirements of the new production structure. This puts further strain on many already struggling businesses leading to more business failures and more people being out of unemployment. While this sounds painful, it is just the market’s way of clearing past production decisions that are not in line with consumer preferences.
This process goes on till the market clears out all such poor decisions and leaves the production system in sync with consumer preferences. Capital is taken out of the hands of those who made poor forecasts of the future into the hands of better forecasters, i.e., from failed entrepreneurs to successful entrepreneurs. This is the proper point of economic recovery. Further economic expansion would, under a free market, be triggered by fresh decisions to save and add to the capital available to be advanced for production for a more distant future.
An alternative, equally or more likely in today’s FRB system, is that the banking system interrupts the market’s cleaning up process and initiates a fresh round of interest rate depression through credit expansion and monetary inflation, thus flooding the market with cheap money and cheap loans. This time, however, one would also have to contend with the possibility that such measures are not guaranteed to work like they have in the past. Experiments in the Western world indicate that such attempts have not really led to an economic recovery this time round.
What the auto industry is going through today could very well be one of the manifestations of the bursting of the bubble created from 2001 to 2007. If people are not buying as many cars as they are producing, it is probably because they do not wish to see producers produce as many cars as they are producing. It is possible that the market is crying for a correction and that producers need to cut-back production to the level customers are ready to support. This is clearly one of the possibilities for any producer. Alternately, producers could place their bets on the RBI, through the banking system, inflating a new bubble through a fresh round of credit expansion and monetary inflation. In this case, they need to hold their horses for the recovery to happen while being prepared to profit the most by being at the vanguard of the recovery.
Clearly, therefore, each entrepreneur will have to decide which scenario is likely to play out and what is the most appropriate course of action for him. It’s not easy, but no one ever said that operating a business in an environment of uncertainty created by endless meddling in the market would be easy. The times sure are challenging and let’s hope many entrepreneurs do make their way heroically through this economic fog to do what they do best – meet customer needs in the best possible way.
What we need to take home, and what this article seeks to emphasise, is the point that in many circumstances, having sound economic understanding can help us understand business situations far better than those economically uninformed or ill-informed can. We can also see that cutting through the fog and making sense of complex situations is made possible by a good grasp of sound economic principles. The situation created by falling sales of the automobile industry in India only highlights the point that learning sound economics is a critical prerequisite for any aspiring business manager seeking to create a career out of making effective business decisions in a complex economic environment.