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Coke, IKEA show that India story hasn’t gone flat

Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola Co., gestures during a media briefing in New Delhi, on June 26, 2012. Coca-Cola Co. said the company and its local partners plan to spend $5 billion in India by 2020 as demand for its products increases in the world's second-most populous nation.

Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

Amid the pessimism surrounding India's reforms, it's easy to forget that growth hasn't stopped. Big multinationals such as Coca-Cola and IKEA can afford to focus on the country's robust long-term prospects. The two companies' flagship bets on India's consumers will help steady nerves in Delhi, and could serve as a catalyst for foreign direct investment from other sources.

Consumer stocks show why investing in Indian customers remains a no-brainer. The Bombay Stock Exchange's FMCG Index, which tracks the locally listed businesses of the likes of Nestlé and Colgate, is up 21 per cent since the start of 2012 – 12 percentage points more than the benchmark Sensex.

Meanwhile, there's plenty of room for India's consumers to catch up with their global peers' tastes. The average consumption of Coke in India is 12 units a year, against Coke's global average of 92 units, according to Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent.

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While consumption helps underpin the economy, investment has slipped to 29.5 per cent of GDP – the lowest proportion in the past four years. That creates an opportunity for large firms with the capacity and patience to make things happen in a choked business environment.

India's long-term growth relies on two factors: demographics and rising wealth. Its population of 1.2 billion will reach 1.7 billion in 2050, according to the United Nations. China's, by contrast, will stay stuck at 1.3 billion. What's more, India's working-age population is still swelling. By 2040, the average age in India it will be 34, while China's will be 46.

On the income side, India's GDP per capita in 2011 was about $1,500 (U.S.), less than a third of China's and a thirtieth of that of the United States. With adequate investment and continued economic growth – even if it's not stellar – there's no reason why India shouldn't narrow the gap.

Last year, India suffered an embarrassing reversal of its plans to allow the entry of foreign supermarkets. But it went largely unnoticed that at the same time it lifted the investment caps for single-brand retailing. That has spurred IKEA's €1.5-billion ($1.9-billion) commitment.

As more restrictions disappear, more deals will be done. Retail, aviation and financial services remain closed. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh taking control of the finance ministry, there is hope that some of those barriers, too, may finally be lifted.

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