Global Investing

Bond market liberalisation — good or bad for India?

Many investors have greeted with enthusiasm India’s plans to get its debt included in international indices such as those run by JPMorgan and Barclays. JPM’s local debt indices, known as the GBI-EM,  were tracked by almost $200 billion at the end of 2012.  So even very small weightings in such indices will give India a welcome slice of investment from funds tracking them.

At present India has a $30 billion cap on the volume of rupee bonds that foreign institutional investors can buy, a tiny proportion of the market. Barclays analysts calculate that Indian rupee bonds could comprise up to a tenth of various market capitalisation-based local-currency bond indices. That implies potential flows of $20 billion in the first six months after inclusion, they say — equivalent to India’s latest quarterly current account deficit. After that, a $10 billion annual inflow is realistic, according to Barclays. Another bank, Standard Chartered, estimates $20-$40 billion could flow in as a result of index inclusion.

All that is clearly good news, above all for the country’s chronic balance of payments deficit. The investments could ease the high borrowing costs that have put a brake on growth, and kick-start the local corporate bond market, provided more safeguards are put in. Indian banks that have traditionally held a huge amount of government bonds, would at least in theory be pushed into lending more to the real economy.

For decades India has been reluctant to let too many foreigners into its bond markets, fearing currency and interest rate volatility as cash comes and goes. RBS analysts say the caution is justified and the benefits of index inclusion at this point could be outweighed by the costs. They point out that inflation and currency appreciation are often side-effects of such flows:

Frequent episodes of real currency appreciation at India’s present stage of development are far from desirable, as they tend to impede the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector.

Indian markets and the promise of reform

What a difference a few months have made for Indian markets.

The rupee is 8 percent up from last summer’s record lows. Foreigners have ploughed $17 billion into Indian stocks and bonds since Sept 2012 and foreign ownership of Indian shares is at a record high 22.7 percent, Morgan Stanley reckons.  And all it has taken to change the mood has been the announcement of a few reforms (allowing foreign direct investment into retail, some fuel and rail price hikes and raising FDI limits in some sectors). A controversial double taxation law has been pushed back.  The government has sold some stakes in state-run companies (it offloaded 10 percent of Oil India last week, netting $585 million).  If the measures continue, the central bank may cut interest rates further.

Above all, there have been promises-a-plenty on fiscal consolidation.

The promises are not new. Only this time, investors appear to believe Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

Chidambaram who was on a four-city roadshow to promote India to investors, pledged in a Reuters interview last week not to cross the “red line” of a 5.3 percent deficit for this year in the Feb 28 budget. Standard Chartered, one of the banks that organised Chidambaram’s roadshow, sent out a note entitled: “The finance minister means business”.

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.

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.