NEW DELHI: As India’s consumption breakdown begins to bite, the focus is firmly shifting to the four big buttresses that once kept the consumer economy rolling but are now floundering.
Traditionally, the bulls have emerged from the shadows whenever these four have had good numbers to show. When they haven’t, the bears have taken over. Each of them starts with B, and each of them is doing pretty badly.
Biscuits, briefs, bikes and booze: These four categories have long been among the most accurate gauges of discretionary spending, and by extension, of the consumer’s belief in the economy.
Although the 4 Bs tell the consumption story only in part — there exist several other high-frequency gauges — they are seen as adequately highlighting the direction that the consumption economy, and thus GDP, is taking. Here’s a one-by-one look at these important markers and the signals they are giving out.
The cookie crumbles
Parle Products, the biscuit bellwether that employs 1 lakh workers, has just hit the alarm button amid the worsening consumption crisis. In a move that shows all isn’t well with the economy, the country’s biggest biscuit producer and the maker of Parle-G, Monaco and Marie said it could end up mass-firing as many as 10,000 employees if slowdown pains did not subside.
Parle is hardly alone in this bitter harvest at a time when biscuits and salty snacks have been among the most badly hurt FMCG categories. Britannia is on the same boat — amid weak consumer demand, its net profit sank 3.5 per cent in the June quarter.
This fall in sentiment has been widely attributed to listless growth of incomes. Nominal per capita disposable income in India fell to 9.5 per cent between 2015 and 2018 from a high of 13.3 per cent between 2010 and 2014.
Dwindling disposable income is primarily why Indians of all hues have cut down on or delayed buying essential items and even staple consumption items, analysts say.
An inside story
Biscuit’s is not a chance fall. The slump in the sale of briefs, or innerwear, is raising a similar red flag for the consumption sector.
Amid rapidly shrinking discretionary buying, the sales growth of innerwear in Indian markets slipped sharply in the quarter ended this June.
During the period, India’s top four listed innerwear companies posted the worst numbers in 10 years. The June numbers of Page Industries — the maker of Jockey briefs — were its slowest since 2008. VIP contracted by a sharp 20 per cent, Lux was flat, and Dollar Industries shrank 4 per cent.
As per the legendary Alan Greenspan’s “men’s underwear index”, the sale of men’s underwear is a very efficient indicator of an economy’s health — a fall in sales reflects an economy in trouble, and a rise signals good times.
In low spirits
The deep FMCG breakdown hasn’t left booze sales unscathed either. Liquor companies were unable to shake off the secular, entrenched slowdown in sales of discretionary consumption items, and beer and spirits sales shrank by as much as a third in April-June 2019.
Sales of booze had steadily been on an upward trajectory since the GST-induced blows got over some three quarters back. But the sector failed to escape the current bout of general degrowth and the trend got firmly reversed in the June quarter.
With lukewarm numbers failing to save sales from going up in smoke, cigarettes don’t have a better story to tell for June, either.
A spoke in the wheels
The spoke in the wheels of India’s bike industry is now too big to ignore anymore. Two-wheeler sales slipped by a good 16.82 per cent in July, the latest in a series of similar monthly performances.
The commercial vehicle segment fell even more steeply, with sales nosediving by a high 25.71 per cent. The passenger car story for July was much, much worse — sales dropped by a humongous 30.98 per cent, numbers never seen in the last 20 years.
These numbers portend seriously bad tidings for a sector that directly or indirectly employs 37 million workers. The sharp fall in demand has already compelled car/bike makers to cut production, affecting 3,50,000 jobs across the country’s auto sector in the last three months alone.
Several hundreds of car showrooms have already shut shop — the likely beginning of an Armageddon for an industry that could see a million more jobs vanish if the slowdown does not ease.
What lies ahead
Nomura yesterday issued the latest of a series of dire warnings: Growth is set to slow further in the April-June quarter to 5.7 per cent.
“High-frequency indicators continue to show familiar pain points – a deep contraction in consumption, weak investment, a slowing external sector and an under-performing services sector,” the global financial services major said.
The grim prediction came amid fears that slowdown pains may prolong as consumer confidence takes further hits from flat FDI growth and global trade & currency wars.
Growth in India fell to 6.8 per cent in 2018-19 — the slowest since 2014-15 — largely owing to the travails of consumption, the segment that accounts for over 60 per cent of GDP. With more and more signs of trouble emerging, numbers suggest this slowdown could be deep and could keep the 4 Bs sputtering.
So, what is the likely road ahead for these four pillars of India’s consumption story? A lot will become clear on August 30 when official GDP numbers for the April-June quarter are out.
Are you a Business Owner? Get Your Free Business Listing on Economic Times.Register NowConnect with us (Ukrainian metal)