Stock Indian economy factory
India's latest GDP estimates, to be released August 31, will show the economy in contraction, and by the biggest drops in recent history. But putting a finger on the extent of decline will be tough as data collection went awry during lockdown. Image Credit: ANI

Mumbai: The coronavirus pandemic has made the job of predicting India's economic growth - already a fraught process in normal times - even harder. Economists are bracing for possible big swings in the quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) data scheduled for release on August 31 and significant revisions going forward.

The statistics office suspended field surveys for several months after India went into lockdown in March, resulting in substantial data gaps. Forecasts for GDP in the quarter through June range from a contraction of 15 per cent to a decline of 25.9 per cent - representing the worst performance since India started reporting quarterly data in 1996.

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Measuring last quarter's GDP has been the "most challenging exercise in a long time," Sumedha Das Gupta, an economist at ICICI Bank Ltd., wrote in a report. "Difficulty in gauging the extent of economic disruption under lockdowns may result in a starkly different number."

Not enough hard evidence

The lack of field surveys add to the data complexities, with output in several sectors likely to be estimated and later revised once the hard numbers become available in coming months. The data gaps could "imply imputation of value-added across major sub-sectors based on limited information from high-frequency indicators and thus prone to large revisions over time," said Gaurav Kapur, an economist with IndusInd Bank Ltd.

Incomplete price-level data, which are used as deflators to arrive at real growth, would also affect GDP numbers, he said.

Don't blame the pandemic

Even before the pandemic, India's GDP statistics have been a source of contention. A change in the methodology to calculate GDP introduced in 2015 made forecasting difficult, prompting some economists to use their own trackers of high-frequency indicators, which compare more closely with the old GDP series. Some are now relying on proxies to estimate output in the three months to June.

Economists are already updating their forecasts based on numbers available from alternative sources, like companies and tax collection. State Bank of India's Soumya Kanti Ghosh revised his fiscal first-quarter GDP estimate to a 16.5 per cent year-on-year decline, milder than the 20 per cent contraction previously predicted, "though with the relevant caveats in the current uncertain scenario".