Global Investing

Tapping India’s diaspora to salvage rupee

What will save the Indian rupee? There’s an election next year so forget about the stuff that’s really needed — structural reforms to labour and tax laws, easing business regulations and scrapping inefficient subsidies. The quickest and most effective short-term option may be a dollar bond issued to the Indian diaspora overseas which could boost central bank coffers about $20 billion.

The option was mooted a month ago when the rupee’s slide started to get into panic territory but many Indian policymakers are not so keen on the idea

So what are the merits of a diaspora bond (or NRI bond as it’s known in India)?

Bankers reckon India could raise a substantial sum relatively cheaply — there are millions of overseas-based folk of Indian origin (including yours truly) and many of them would probably be happy to commit five-year cash for yields around 6- 7 percent.

Indranil Sengupta, India economist at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch reckons that a $20 billion instant addition to the RBI reserves would sooth markets which deem India’s current reserve cover of 7 months as too little for comfort (of the other BRICs, Brazil has 20 months import cover, Russia 17 months and China 22 months).  Sengupta writes

Bond investors’ pre-budget optimism in India

Ten-year Indian bond yields have fallen 30 basis points this year alone and many forecast the gains will extend further. It all depends on two things though — the Feb 28 budget of which great things are expected, and second, the March 19 central bank meeting. The latter potentially could see the RBI, arguably the world’s most hawkish central bank, finally turn dovish.

Barclays is advising clients to bid for quotas to buy Indian government and corporate bonds at this Wednesday’s foreigners’ quota auction (India’s securities exchange, SEBI, will auction around $12.3 billion in quotas for foreign investors to buy bonds). Analysts at the bank noted that this would be the last auction before the central bank meeting at which a quarter point rate cut is expected. Moreover the Reserve Bank of India will signal more to come, Barclays says, predicting 75 bps in total starting March.

That is likely to be driven first by recent data — inflation in January was at a three-year low while growth has slowed to a decade low.  Barclays notes:

India, a hawk among central bank doves

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.

With GDP growth slowing to  10-year lows, the RBI would dearly love to follow other central banks in cutting rates.  But its pointed warning on inflation on the eve of today’s policy meeting practically sealed the meeting’s outcome. Interest rates have duly been kept on hold, though in a nod to the tough conditions, the RBI did ease banks’ statutory liquidity ratio. The move will free up some more cash for lending.

What is more significant is that the RBI has revised up its inflation forecast for the coming year by half a  percentage point, and in a post-meeting statement said rate cuts at this stage would do little to boost flagging growth. That, to many analysts, is a signal the bank will provide little monetary accommodation in coming months. and may force  markets to pedal back on their expectation of 100 basis points of rate cuts in the next 12 months.  Anubhuti Sahay at Standard Chartered in Mumbai says:

India rate cut clamour misses rupee’s fall-JPM

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.

Yet,  there may be little the RBI can do to kickstart growth and investment.  Many would argue the growth slowdown is not caused by tight monetary conditions but is down to supply constraints and macroeconomic risks –the government’s inability to lift a raft of crippling subsidies has swollen the fiscal deficit to almost 6 percent while inhibitions on foreign investment in food processing and retail keep food prices volatile.  

The other side of the problem is of course the rupee which has plunged to record lows amid the global turmoil. Lower interest rates could  leave the currency vulnerable to further losses.

Battered India rupee lacks a warchest

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.

Without real sign of rate cuts, Indian equity rally still fragile

Indian equities are among the best emerging markets performers this year, with the Mumbai market having posted its best January rise since 1994. That’s quite a reversal from last year’s 24 percent slump. The bet is faltering economic growth will force the central bank to cut interest rates from a crippling 8.5 percent. So, how safe is the rally?

Some conditions are already in place. Valuations look decent after last year’s drop. There has been a surge in global investors’ appetite for emerging market assets. So Apurva Shah, who helps manage $600 million at the BNP Paribas Mutual Fund in Mumbai, expects positive returns from Indian stocks this year. But for a decent rally to be sustained, interest rates have to fall in order to kickstart faltering growth, he says.

The risk is really the assumption that interest rates and inflation are actually on the way down. We’ve seen the first leg of that happening, but it’s just the beginning. Rates are still way too high. To trigger off any real revival in economic growth they need to fall a lot more.

India: the odd BRIC out

China moved to ease policy this week via a reserve ratio cut for banks, effectively starting to reverse a tightening cycle that’s been in place since last January. Later the same day, Brazil’s central bank cut interest rates by 50 basis points for the third time in a row. Both countries are expected to continue easing policy as the global economic downturn bites. And last week Russia signalled that rate cuts could be on the way.

That makes three of the four members of the so-called BRIC group of the biggest emerging economies. Indonesia, the country some believe should be included in the BRIC group, has also been cutting rates. That leaves India, the fourth leg of the BRICs, the quartet whose name was coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill ten years ago this week. India could use a rate cut for sure. Data this week showed growth slowing to 6.9 percent in the three months to September — the slowest since September 2009. Factory output slowed to a 32-month low last month, feeling the effects of the global malaise as well as 375 basis points in rate increases since last spring. No wonder Indian stocks, down 20 percent this year, are the worst performing of the four BRIC markets.

But unlike the other BRICs, a rate cut is a luxury India cannot afford now — inflation is still running close to double digits.  “The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is the odd guy out due to stubbornly high inflation of near 10 percent,” writes Commerzbank analyst Charlie Lay.

Good reasons for rupee’s fall but also for recovery

It’s been a pretty miserable 2011 for India and Tuesday’s collapse of the rupee to record lows beyond 52 per dollar will probably make things worse. Foreigners, facing a fast-falling currency, have pulled out $500 million from the stock market in just the last five trading sessions.   That means net inflows this year are less than $300 million, raising concerns that India will have trouble financing its current account gap.  The weaker currency also bodes ill for the country’s stubbornly high inflation.

Why is the rupee suffering so much? First of all, it is a casualty of the general exodus from emerging markets. As a deficit economy, India is bound to suffer more than say Brazil, Korea or Malaysia.  And 18 months of interest rate rises have taken a toll on growth.

UBS analysts  proffer another explanation. They point out a steady deterioration in India’s net reserve coverage since the 2008 crisis. The reserve buffer — foreign-exchange reserves plus the annual current account balance, minus short-term external debt — stands at 9 percent of GDP, down from 14 percent in 2008.  Within emerging markets, only Egypt, Venezuela and Belarus saw bigger declines in net reserve coverage than India.