Economy probably grew 4.9 percent in December quarter

BANGALORE Wed Feb 26, 2014 2:38pm IST

1 of 2. A migrant labourer from India works at a construction site for the Vaishno Devi Temple, measuring 24 metres (79 feet) in height, at the premises of Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu January 20, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

BANGALORE (Reuters) - India's economic growth likely slowed to a near decade-low at the end of last year as high interest rates hit factory activity, according to economists polled by Reuters who don't expect a pickup in investment before May elections.

The poll of 36 economists, conducted Feb 19-25, predicted Asia's third-largest economy grew 4.9 percent over a year ago in the three months to December, similar to the 4.8 percent rate in the previous quarter.

That is a shadow of the close-to-double-digit growth rates in recent years and is a signal of the problems gripping Indian factories, which are weighed down by both high interest rates and diminishing consumer demand.

Industrial output contracted in each of the last three months of 2013, led by steep falls in capital and consumer goods production.

"High borrowing costs necessitated by elevated inflation, coupled with subdued demand, have kept manufacturing and investment interest on the back foot," said Radhika Rao, economist at DBS.

A stalled investment cycle due to uncertainty over government policy has also pushed many infrastructure projects onto the back burner in recent years.

That situation is unlikely to improve soon and all 22 economists who answered an extra question said they didn't expect any substantial improvement in investment before general elections in May.

Elevated borrowing costs have added to manufacturers' woes after the Reserve Bank of India hiked interest rates three times between September and January to curb stubborn inflation which showed no signs of easing even as growth tumbled.

While wholesale inflation did slow to an eight-month low in January, the fall was driven by softer food and vegetable prices which are considered volatile and could head higher again.

Still, economists have mostly predicted the RBI will pause its rate hike spree, especially after the central bank said it did not foresee further near-term tightening if consumer price inflation eased as projected.

India's retail inflation slowed to a two-year low of 8.79 percent in January.

The poll also showed economists were split down the middle on whether Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's estimate of containing the fiscal deficit at 4.6 percent of gross domestic product was achievable.

While 11 of 22 said Chidambaram's estimate is 'about right', an equal number said he was being optimistic.

The concern, though, is on the roll-over of subsidies.

"The deficit of 4.6 percent will be achieved artificially through pushing the energy subsidy payments into the next fiscal year and through the one-time non-tax revenue from wireless spectrum sale and special dividends from state-owned corporations," said Hanna Luchnikava, economist at IHS Global Insight.

"Without these measures, the deficit is estimated to have reached around 5.2 percent of GDP."

Economists in the poll predicted the economy would grow 5.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014.

(Polling by Sarmista Sen; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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