A major reason for announcing the so called economic reforms that the Manmohan Singh UPA government did over the last weekend was to get India’s burgeoning oil subsidy bill which was expected to cross Rs 1,90,000 crore during the course of the year, under some control.
One move was the increase in diesel price by Rs 5 per litre and limiting the number of cooking gas cylinders that one could get at the subsidisedprice to six per year. This was a direct step to reduce the loss that the oil marketing companies (OMCs) face every time they sell diesel and cooking gas to the end consumer.
The other part of the reform game was about expectations management. The announcement of reforms like allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand foreign retailing or the airline sector was not expected to have any direct impact anytime soon. But what it was expected to do was shore up the image of the government and tell the world at large that this government is committed to economic reform.
Now how does that help in controlling the burgeoning oil bill?
Oil is sold internationally in dollars. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil is currently quoting at around $115.3 per barrel of oil (one barrel equals around 159litres).
Before the reforms were announced one dollar was worth around Rs 55.4(on September 13, 2012 i.e.). So if an Indian OMC wanted to buy one barrel of oil it had to convert Rs 6387.2 into $115.3 dollars, and pay for the oil.
After the reforms were announced the rupee started increasing in value against the dollar. By September 17, one dollar was worth around Rs 53.7. Now if an Indian OMC wanted to buy one barrel of oil it had to convert Rs 6191.6 into $115.3 to pay for the oil.
Hence, as the rupee increases in value against the dollar, the Indian OMCs pay less for the oil the buy internationally. A major reason for the increase in value of the rupee was that on September 14 and September 17, the foreign institutional investors poured money into the stock market. They bought stocks worth Rs 5086 crore over the two day period. This meant dollars had to be sold and rupee had to be bought, thus increasing the demand for rupee and helping it gain in value against the dollar.
But this rupee rally was short lived and the dollar has gained some value against the rupee and is currently worth around Rs 54.
The question is why did this happen? Initially the market and the foreign investors bought the idea that the government was committed at ending the policy logjam and initiating various economic reforms. Hence the foreign investors invested money into the stock market, the stock market rallied and so did the rupee against the dollar.
But now the realisation is setting in that the reform process might be derailed even before it has been earnestly started. This was reflected in the amount of money the foreign investors brought into the stock market on September 18. The number was down to around Rs 1049.2 crore. In comparison they had invested more than Rs 5080 crore over the last two trading sessions.
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, a key constituent of the UPA government, has decided to withdraw support to the government. At the same time it has asked the government to withdraw a major part of the reforms it has already initiated by Friday. If the government does that the Trinamool Congress will reconsider its decision.
How the political scenario plays out remains to be seen. But if the government does bow to Mamata’s diktats then the economic repercussions of that decision will be huge. The government had hoped that the losses on account of selling, diesel, kerosene and cooking gas, could have been brought down to Rs 1,67,000 crore, from the earlier Rs 1,92,000 crore by increasing the price of diesel and limiting the consumption of subsidised cooking gas.
If the government goes back on these moves, the oil subsidy bill will go back to attaining a monstrous size. Also, what the calculation of Rs 1,67,000 crore did not take into account was the fact that rupee would gain in value against the dollar. And that would have further brought down the oil subsidy bill. In fact HSBC which had earlier forecast Rs 57 to a dollar by December 2012, revised its forecast to Rs 52 to a dollar on Monday. But by then the Mamata factor hadn’t come into play.
If the government bows to Mamata, the rupee will definitely start losing value against the dollar again. This will happen because the foreign investors will stay away from both the stock market as well as direct investment. In fact, the foreign direct investment during the period of April to June 2012 has been disastrous. It has fallen by 67% to $4.41billion in comparison to $13.44billion, during the same period in 2011. If the government goes back on the few reforms that it unleashed over the last weekend, foreign direct investment is likely to remain low.
One factor that can change things for India is the if the price of crude oil were to fall. But that looks unlikely. The immediate reason is the tension in the Middle East and the threat of war between Iran and Israel. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, recently said that the United States would not set any deadline for the ongoing negotiations with Iran. This hasn’t gone down terribly well with Israel. Reacting to this Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel said “the world tells Israel, wait, there’s still time, and I say, ‘Wait for what, wait until when? Those in the international community who refuse to put a red line before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel.” (Source: www.oilprice.com)
Iran does not recognise Israel as a nation. This has led to countries buying up more oil than they need and building stocks to take care of this geopolitical risk. “In the recent period, since the start of 2012, the increase in stocks has been substantial, i.e. 2 to 3 million barrels per day. These are probably precautionary stocks linked to geopolitical risks,” writes Patrick Artus of Flash Economics in a recent report titled Why is the oil price not falling?
At the same time the United States is pushing nations across the world to not source their oil from Iran, which is the second largest producer of oil within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). This includes India as well.
With the rupee losing value against the dollar and the oil price remaining high the oil subsidy bill is likely to continue to remain high. And this means the trade deficit (the difference between exports and imports) is likely to remain high. The exports for the period between April and July 2012, stood at $97.64billion. The imports on the other hand were at $153.2billion. Of this, $53.81billion was spent on oil imports. If we take oil imports out of the equation the difference between India’s exports and imports is very low.
Now what does this impact the value of the rupee against the dollar? An exporter gets paid in dollars. When he brings those dollars back into the country he has to convert them into rupees. This means he has to buy rupees and sell dollars. This helps shore up the value of the rupee as the demand for rupee goes up.
In case of an importer the things work exactly the opposite way. An importer has to pay for the imports in terms of dollars. To do this, he has to buy dollars by paying in rupees. This increases the demand for the dollar and pushes up its value against the rupee.
As we see the difference between imports and exports for the first four months of the year has been around $55billion. This means that the demand for the dollar has been greater than the demand for the rupee.
One way to fill this gap would be if foreign investors would bring in money into the stock market as well as for direct investment. They would have had to convert the dollars they want to invest into rupees and that would have increased the demand for the rupee.
The foreign institutional investors have brought in around $3.86billion (at the current rate of $1 equals Rs 54) since the beginning of the year. The foreign direct investment for the first three months of the year has been at $4.41 billion.
So what this tells us that there is a huge gap between the demand for dollars and the supply of dollars. And precisely because of this the dollar has gained in value against the rupee. On April 2, 2012, at the beginning of the financial year, one dollar was worth around Rs 50.8. Now it’s worth Rs 54.
This situation is likely to continue. And I wouldn’t be surprised if rupee goes back to its earlier levels of Rs 56 to a dollar in the days to come. It might even cross those levels, if the government does bow to the diktats of Mamata.
This would mean that India would have to pay more for the oil that it buys in dollars. This in turn will push up the demand for dollars leading to a further fall in the value of the rupee against the dollar.
Since the government forces the OMCs to sell diesel, kerosene and cooking gas much below their cost to consumers, the losses will continue to mount. The current losses have been projected to be at Rs 1,67,000 crore. I won’t be surprised if they cross Rs 2,00,000 crore. The government has to compensate the OMCs for these losses in order to ensure that they don’t go bankrupt.
This also means that the government will cross its fiscal deficit target of Rs 5,13,590 crore. The fiscal deficit, which is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends, might well be on its way to touch Rs 7,00,000 crore or 7% of GDP. (For a detailed exposition of this argument click here). And that will be a disastrous situation to be in. Interest rates will continue to remain high. And so will inflation. To conclude, the traffic in Mumbai before the Ganesh Chaturthi festival gets really bad. Any five people can get together while taking the Ganesh statue to their homes, put on a loudspeaker, start dancing on the road and thus delay the entire traffic on the road for hours. Indian politics is getting more and more like that.
Reforms, like the traffic, may have to wait. Mamata’s revolt is single-handedly worsening the oil bill, thanks, in part, to the rupee’s worsening fortunes. By not raising prices now, the subsidy bill bloat further, and in due course we will be truly in the soup.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 20, 2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/how-mamata-is-denting-the-rupee-and-bloating-the-oil-bill-461919.html
Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected]