Half of India’s 1.2 billion people have been without power today, bringing transport, factories and offices to a grinding halt for the second day in a row and sparking rage amongst the sweltering population. That’s embarrassing enough for a country that prides itself as a member of the BRIC quartet of big emerging powerhouses along with Brazil, Russia and China. But the outages will also hit economic growth which is already at 10-year lows. And the power failures, highlighting India’s woeful infrastructure, bode poorly for the government’s plans to step up manufacturing and lure more foreign companies to the factory sector.
So India has not joined emerging central banks’ rate-cutting spree . After recent rate cuts in Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Philippines and Colombia, and others signalling their worries over the state of economic growth, hawks are in short supply among the world’s increasingly dovish central banks. But the Reserve Bank of India is one.
Taiwan and Philippines have joined the easing crew. Taiwan cut interbank lending rates for the first time in 33 months on Friday while Philippines lowered the rate it pays banks on short-term special deposits. Hardly surprising. Given South Koreas’s shock rate cut on Thursday, its first in over three years, and China’s two rate cuts in quick succession, the spread of monetary easing across Asia looks inevitable. Markets are now betting the Reserve Bank of India will also cut rates in July.
Brazil’s central bank meets today and almost certainly will announce another half point cut in interest rates, the eighth consecutive reduction since last August. But so far there is little sign that its rate-cutting spree — the longest and most aggressive in the developing world — is having much success in resuscitating the economy.
Indian markets are rallying this week as they price in an interest rate cut at the Reserve Bank’s June 18 meeting. With the country still in shock after last week’s 5.3 percent first quarter GDP growth print, it is easy to understand the clamour for rate cuts. After all, first quarter growth just a year ago was 9.2 percent.
India’s first-quarter GDP growth report was a shocker this morning at +5.3 percent. Much as Western countries would dream of a print that good, it’s akin to a hard landing for a country only recently aspiring to double-digit expansions and, with little hope of any strong reform impetus from the current government, things might get worse if investment flows dry up. The rupee is at a new record low having fallen 7 percent in May alone against the dollar — bad news for companies with hard currency debt maturing this year (See here). So investors are likely to find themselves paying more and more to hedge exposure to India.
In normal times, an aggressive central bank campaign to cut interest rates would provide fodder for stock market bulls. That’s not happening in Brazil. Its interest rate, the Selic, has fallen 350 basis points since last August and is likely to fall further at this week’s meeting to a record low of 8.5 percent. Yet the Sao Paulo stock market is among the world’s worst performers this year, with losses of around 4 percent. That’s better than fellow BRIC Russia but far worse than India and China.
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.
After a ghastly 2011, Indian stock markets have’t done too badly this year despite the almost constant stream of bad news from India. They are up 12 percent, slightly outperforming other emerging markets, thanks to fairly cheap valuations (by India’s normally expensive standards) and hopes the central bank might cut rates. But foreign inflows, running at $3 billion a month in the first quarter, have tapered off and the underlying mood is pessimistic. Above all, the worry is how much will India’s once turbo-charged economy slow? With the government seemingly in policy stupor, growth is likely to fall under 7 percent this year. News today added to the gloom — exports fell in March for the first time since the 2009 global crisis.