Why the rupee can keep falling

People ask me, will the exchange rate go to Rs 70 to the dollar? I reply, why not Rs 80?

Indian analysts are in denial. They don’t dare face up to the full consequences of the global financial hurricane originating in the US. This will keep blowing for 12-18 months.

To revive the US economy, the Federal Reserve has been pumping out $85 billion of cash per month (called quantitative easing). With the US economy recovering, the Fed plans to reduce this cash bonanza in stages to zero. Emerging markets like India have long enjoyed a slice of this $85 b/month. Not only will fresh flows stop, older flows will reverse to the US, a net turnaround of hundreds of billions.

This storm has knocked the rupee down almost 25% in two months. It is the first of many storms that will hit not just India but the whole developing world, with every tightening of the money tap by the Fed.

Expect a second Asian Financial Crisis. This will cause much less damage than the earlier one in 1997-99. Then, Asian countries had low forex reserves, excessively high debt, and semi-fixed exchange rates. Learning from 1997, Asian countries (including India) now have large forex reserves, less debt, and floating exchange rates. This makes them far more resilient, so they will not collapse as in 1997. But they will suffer substantial damage. Countries with large current account deficits like India will suffer the most. But even Malaysia, which runs a surplus, has seen its currency crash 10%.

A crashing currency raises the prices of all items that can be imported or exported. This erodes people’s purchasing power — by maybe 2.5 to 3% of GDP in India’s case. That is hugely recessionary, as is already evident in the latest data showing falling production of services as well as manufactures.

Such a recession can, in theory, be combated by monetary and fiscal stimuli, as in 2008. But today money must be kept tight to check inflation, so no monetary stimulus is possible. Finance Minister P Chidambaram has sworn to limit the fiscal deficit to 4.8% of GDP, so no fiscal stimulus is possible either. With GDP growth and revenues falling far below budgeted numbers, and oil and fertiliser subsidies rising, he will have to slash Plan investment to meet his fiscal target.

The breach will not be filled by private investment — few businessmen will invest when domestic demand is collapsing. So, the economy will spiral downwards.

One theoretical solution is use a depreciated currency to stimulate export-led growth. If exports grow 20% per year for two years, that will help weather the storm. However, as we found in 1997, when all developing countries are hit, all cannot suddenly increase exports at the same time: the West lacks enough absorption capacity. Besides, India’s investment climate is terrible — files just don’t move, with or without bribes. Many Indian companies would rather invest abroad. Politicians are more focused on distributing goodies before the election than on slashing red tape.

Finance ministry analysts say the equilibrium exchange rate is Rs 58-60 per dollar. They say irrational panic has caused overshooting, and economic fundamentals will soon force the dollar’s value back to Rs 60.

Warning: similar things were said when Asian currencies began to slide in 1997. Far from recovering, they crashed further. The Indonesian rupiah went from 2,500 per dollar all the way to 18,000.

Why so? Because when a currency crashes, that itself changes the economy’s fundamentals. Domestic purchasing power falls, causing a recession. Prices shoot up, negating the positive effects on exports. Corporations that have borrowed abroad heavily go bust. Banks that have lent to such borrowers (and others hit by recession) cannot recover their loans. International rating agencies downgrade such economies, inducing further capital flight.

India’s fundamentals have already changed. GDP growth in the first quarter is down to 4.4%. It could fall to 3.5-4% over the full fiscal year. A slowing economy will help reduce the current account deficit, but hit the fiscal deficit. Wholesale prices had been falling but are accelerating again, dampening purchasing power. All industries face slowing revenues and rising costs, eroding profits. Tax revenue may grow by hardly half the budgeted estimate of 19%.

Disinvestment can happen only at throwaway prices. Chidambaram is a determined disciplinarian, but may be powerless to stop global hurricanes. The threat of a credit downgrade has become very real.

Right now, there is a lull in the financial storm, and the rupee has regained some ground. But this storm will blow, off and on, for 12-18 months. Gird your loins.

1 thought on “Why the rupee can keep falling”

  1. True people admit mistakes in themselves. Your prediction of week rupee is completely failed after US partially withdrew its monthly pumping of $85 billion. Do you have proper economic theory based explanation for this?

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