The Indian rupee’s plunge this week to record lows will have surprised no one. After all, the currency has been inching towards this for weeks, propelled by the government’s paralysis on vital reforms and tax wrangles with big foreign investors. These are leading to a drying up of FDI and accelerating the exodus from stock markets. Industrial production and exports have been falling. High oil prices have added a nasty twist to that cocktail. If the euro zone noise gets louder, a balance of payments crisis may loom. The rupee could fall further to 56 per dollar, most analysts predict.
True, the rupee is not the only emerging currency that is taking a hit. But the Reserve Bank of India looks especially powerless to stem the decline. (See here for an article by my colleagues in Mumbai) . One reason the RBI’s hands are effectively tied is that India is one of the few emerging economies that has failed to build up its hard currency reserves since the 2008 crisis and so is unable to spend in the currency’s defence. Usable FX reserves stand now around $260 bilion, down from $300 billion just before the 2008 crisis. See the following graphic from UBS which shows that relative to GDP, India’s reserve loss has been the greatest in emerging markets.
But there is worse. The relative decline in reserves since 2008 coincides with a ballooning in India’s external debt, both private and public. Comprising mostly of corporate borrowing and trade credit, the debt stands at $350 billion, up from $225 billion four years back.
No wonder investors have upped their bearish bets on the rupee: a Reuters poll of Asian fund managers shows these at a six-month high and significantly higher than any other Asian currency. For now, the trade looks worryingly like a one-way street.