Inflation at 8 month high is a sure spoiler to FM’s ‘all is well’ party

InflationVivek Kaul  
All is well, again.
Or so the government of India has been trying to tell us over the last few weeks.
But some spoilers have come in lately.
The wholesale price inflation (WPI) for the month of September 2013 has come in at an eight month high of 6.46%. It was at 6.1% in August and 5.85% in July.
A massive increase in food prices has been a major driver of wholesale price inflation. Onion prices rose by a massive 323% in September in comparison to the same period last year. Vegetable prices went up by 89.37%. Fruits were up at 13.54%. And all in all food prices were up by 18.4% in comparison to the same period last year.
Half of the expenditure of an average household in India is on food. In case of the poor it is 60% (NSSO 2011). Given this, the massive rise in food prices, hits what the Congress led UPA calls the 
aam aadmi, the most.
In this scenario it is more than likely that the 
aam aadmi has been cutting down on expenditure on non essential items like consumer durables, in order to ensure that he has enough money in his pocket to pay for food.
Hence, it is not surprising the index for industrial production, a measure of the industrial activity in the country, rose by just 0.6% in August 2013, after rising by 2.8% in July.
As Sonal Varma of Nomura writes in a research note dated October 11, 2013 “
consumer durables output growth remained in the negative, possibly due to a sharper slowdown in white goods production.” Consumer durables output fell by 7.6% in August 2013. This after falling by 8.9% in July.
What this tells us clearly is that as people are spending more money on food, they are postponing other expenditure. This postponement of consumption is reflected in companies not increasing the production of goods, which in turn is reflected in the overall index of industrial production rising at a very slow pace and the consumer durables output falling by a whopping 7.6% in August 2013.
The government of India wants to tackle this by increasing the capital of public sector banks in the hope that they give out loans to people to buy consumer durables and two wheelers at lower interest rates. (Why that is a bad idea
 is explained here).
But the trouble is that people are not in the mood to buy stuff because 
they do not feel confident enough of their job prospects in the days to come. As Varma put it in a note dated October 3, 2011 “The job market and income growth – the key drivers of consumption – remain lacklustre.”
Over and above that there is high food inflation to contend with.
One reason that the inflation will continue to remain high is the fact that the government of India has been running a high fiscal deficit. In the first five months of the year (i.e. the period between April-August 2013) the fiscal deficit stood at 8.7% of the GDP. The government is targeting a fiscal deficit of 4.8% of the GDP during the course of the financial year. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
As economist Shankar Acharya put it 
in a recent column in the Business Standard “In the first five months of 2013-14, the Centre’s fiscal deficit ratio has been running at a whopping 8.7 per cent of GDP. Bringing it down to 4.8 per cent in the remaining seven months looks impossibly difficult, without recourse to seriously creative accounting ploys. In any case, it is worth pointing out that a deficit that stays high through most of the year imposes the associated costs of higher inflation, higher interest rates, more crowding out of private investment.”
With the government running a higher fiscal deficit it needs to borrow more money to finance the deficit. This means that the private sector will have lesser money to borrow(i.e. it will be crowded out by the government) and hence, will have to offer higher interest rates to borrow money. Hence, the interest rates will continue to remain high.
Also, a higher fiscal deficit means increased government spending in some areas of the economy. This leads to more money chasing the same amount of goods and services and hence, higher prices i.e. inflation.
When interest rates as well as inflation remain high, people are likely to concentrate on consuming things that they need the most, like food and avoiding other expenditure. This will have an impact on economic growth. Hence, the only way to revive economic growth is to weed out inflation. And that’s easier said than done.
This recent confidence of the government has come from the fact that the rupee which had almost touched 70 to a dollar, is now quoting at around 61.2 to a dollar.
This has happened because the government has taken steps to squeeze out gold import totally. In the month of September the gold imports fell to around $0.8 billion. In August, the gold imports were at $0.65 million.
Gold is bought and sold internationally in dollars. Hence, any gold importer needs dollars to buy gold. To buy these dollars the importer needs to sell rupees. And this pushes the value of the rupee down against the dollar.
But with the government making it very difficult to buy gold, the importers are not buying dollars and selling rupees. And this has helped the rupee to recover partially, given that the demand for dollars in the official foreign exchange market has gone down.
Of course these numbers do not include the gold that is now being smuggled into India. While there is no specific data available for this, there is enough anecdotal evidence going around. As Dan Smith and Anubhuti Sahay of Standard Chartered write in a report titled 
Gold – India’s government gets tough “Pakistan temporarily suspended a duty-free gold import arrangement in August, when gold imports doubled. According to media reports, much of this was crossing the border into India. Dubai has seen a steady pick-up in the number of passengers being arrested at airports for smuggling. Nepal has seen an eight-fold rise in smuggling – 69kg of smuggled gold was seized by customs in the first half of this year, versus 18kg for the whole of 2012.”
This does not reflect in the official numbers and there are other social consequences of smuggling. It is worth remembering that Dawood Ibrahim started out primarily as a gold smuggler, until he moved onto other bigger things.
The other factor that has helped control the value of the rupee against the dollar is the fact that oil companies are buying dollars directly from the Reserve Bank of India and not from the market. Hence, the two major buyers of dollars in the foreign exchange market have been taken out of the equation totally. This has skewed the equation in favour of the rupee.
Of course this cannot continue forever. Some demand for gold is likely to return in the months of October and November, because of the marriage season as well as Diwali. The other decision that has helped the rupee is the fact that the Federal Reserve of United States has decided to continue printing money.
While it is widely expected that the Federal Reserve will continue to print money in the months to come, this is something that is not under the control of the Indian government. Also, it is worth remembering that given the high fiscal deficit, the threat of India being downgraded to “junk” status by an international rating agency remains very high. If this were to happen, many investors will exit India in a hurry, putting pressure on the rupee, and undoing all the work that has been done to get it back to a level of 61 against the dollar.
In short, the macroeconomic conditions of India continue to remain weak, despite the government trying to project otherwise.
The article originally appeared on on October 14, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

In theory, Rupee at 72 to dollar is the solution to CAD

Gary Dugan 4

Gary Dugan is the CIO – Asia and Middle East, RBS Wealth Division. In this freewheeling interview with Vivek Kaul he talks about the recent currency crash in Asia, where the rupee is headed to in the days to come and why you would be lucky, if you are able to find a three BHK apartment, anywhere in one of the major cities of the world, for less than $100,000.
What are your views on the current currency crash that is on in Asia?
People are trying to characterise it as something like what has happened in the past. I think it is very different. It is different in the sense that we know that emerging markets in general have improved. Their financial systems are more stronger. The government policy has been more prudent and their exposure to overseas investors in general has been well controlled. I don’t think we are going to see a 12 month or a two year problem here. However, countries such as India and Indonesia have been caught out and the money flows have brought their currencies under pressure. So, it’s a problem but not a crisis.
One school of thought coming out seems to suggest that we are going to see some version of the Asian financial crisis that happened in 1998, over the next 18 to 20 months…
I totally disagree with that. The rating agencies have looked at the Indonesian banks and they have said that these banks are well-abled to weather the problems. If you look at India, the banking system is well-abled to weather the problems. It is not as if that there is a whole set of banks about to announce significant write down of assets or lending. The only thing could go wrong is what is happening in Syria. If the oil price goes to $150 per barrel then the whole world has got a problem. The emerging market countries would have an inflation problem and that would only create an exaggeration of what we are seeing at the moment.
Where do you see the rupee going in the days to come?
There is still going to be downward pressure. I said right at the beginning of the year, and I was a little bit tongue in cheek when I said that in theory the rupee could fall to 72. At 72 to a dollar, in theory, clears the current account deficit. I never expected it to get anywhere near that, certainly in a short period of time. But some good comes out of the very substantial adjustments, because pressure on the current account starts to disappear. Already the data is reflecting that. Where the rupee should be in the longer term is a very difficult question to answer.
Lets say by the end of year…
(Laughs) I challenged our foreign exchange market experts on this and asked them what is the fair value for the rupee? I ran some numbers on the hotel prices in Mumbai, relative to other big cities, and not just New York and London, but places like Istanbul as well. India, is the cheapest place among these cities. Like the Economist’s McDonald Index, I did a hotel index, and on that you could argue that the rupee should be 20-30% higher. But, if you look at the price that you have got to pay to sort out your economic problems, it is probably that the currency is going to be closer to 70 than 60 for the balance of this year.
One argument that is often made, at least by the government officials is that because the rupee is falling our exports will start to go up. But that doesn’t seem to have happened…
It takes a while. I was actually talking to a client in Hong Kong last week and he said that warehouses in India have been emptied of flat screen TVs, and they have all been sent to Dubai because they are 20% cheaper now. It is a simple story of how the market reacts to a falling currency.
But it’s not as simple as that…
Of course. A part of the problem that India has is that the economic model has more been based on the service sector rather than manufacturing. The amount of manufactured products that become cheaper immediately and everyone says that I need more Indian products rather than Chinese products or Vietnamese products, is probably insufficient in number to give a sharp rebound immediately. Where you may see a change, even though some of the call centre managers are a little sceptical about it, is that call centres which had lost their competitive edge because of very substantial wage growth in India, will immediately get a good kicker again. It would certainly be helpful, but I would say that it normally takes three to six months to see the maximum benefit of the currency adjustment.
What are the views on the stock market?
I am just a bit sceptical that you are going to see much performance before the elections. I always say it is a relative game rather than absolute one. If all markets are doing well, then India with its adjustment will do fine. Within the BRIC countries, India falls at the bottom of the pack, in terms of relative attractiveness, just because there is a more dynamic story for some of the other countries at the moment.
One of the major negatives for the stock market in India is the fact that the private companies in India have a huge amount of dollar debt…
It is definitely a reason to worry. It’s not something I have looked at in detail. But as you were asking the question, I was just thinking that people are dragging all sorts of bad stories out. When there were bad stories before, people were just finding their way through it. And India has a wonderful way of working its way through its problems and has been doing that for many many years. Remember that these problems come to the head only if the banks call them to account. I think there will be a re-negotiation. It is not as if a very substantial part of Indian history is about to go under because someone is going to pull the plug on them.
Most of the countries that have gone from being developing countries to becoming developed countries have gone through a manufacturing revolution, which is something that is something that has been missing in India…
It is. You look at the stories from the past five years, and the waning strength of the service sector in India, in th international markets, comes out. A good example is that of call centres that have gone back to the middle of the United States from India. A part of that came through currency adjustment. You can say that maybe the rupee was overvalued at the time when this crisis hit. But it is true, in a sense, that India has got to back-fill a stronger manufacturing industry and it has got to reinforce its competitive edge in the service sector.
What is holding back the Indian service sector?
A number of structural things. I talked to some service sector companies at the beginning of the year. And one of things I was told was that I have got all my workers sitting here in this call centre, but now they cannot afford to live within two hours of commuting distance. Why did that happen? That is not about service sector. It is about the broad infrastructure and putting people at home, close to where they work. There are lot of problems to be solved.
There has been talk about the Federal Reserve going slow on money printing(or tapering as it is called) in the days to come. How do you see that going?
Everyone has got to understand that the principle of quantitative easing is to generate growth. So, if there is enough growth around they will keep tapering, even if they get it wrong by starting to taper too early. They will stop tapering if growth is slow. Secondly, number of Federal Reserve governors are worried about imprudent actions of consumers and industrialists, in terms of taking cheap money and spending it on things that they typically do not need to spend on. A good example is speculation in the housing market, something which created the problem in the first place. So they want to choke such bad behaviours. They will probably start tapering in September in a small way. The only thing that may stop it from happening is if the middle Eastern situation blows up. The US didn’t think it was going to get involved a few weeks ago. Now it is.
Isn’t this kind of ironical, that the solution to the problem of propping up the property market again, is something that caused the problem in the first place…
That’s been very typical of the United States for the last 100 years. Evertime there is a problem you ask people to use their credit cards. Or use some form of credit. And when there is an economic slowdown because of the problems of non performing loans, then you get the credit card out again. So, yeah unfortunately that is the way it is.
Why is there this tendency to go back to the same thing that causes the problem, over and over again?
It is the quickest fix. And you hope that you are going to bring about structural changes during the course of a better economic cycle. So people don’t bring the heavyweight policies in place until they have got the economy going again and sadly the only way you can get the economy going again is to just to make credit cheap and encourage people to borrow.
Inflation targeting by central banks has come in for criticism lately. The point is that because a central bank works with a certain inflation target in mind, it ends up encouraging bubbles by keeping interest rates too low for too long. What is your view on that?
These concepts were brought in when central banks thought they could control inflation. If you look at one country that dominates the world at the moment in terms of product prices and in terms of the inflation rate, it is China. Your monetary policy isn’t going to change the behaviours of China. And some of the flairs up in inflation have been as a consequence of China and therefore monetary policies have no impact. Secondly, the idea of controlling inflation, the concept worked for the 20 years of the bull market. Then we got inflation which was too low. So we have changed it all around to actually try to create inflation rather than to dampen inflation. I don’t think they know what tools they should be using. The central banks are using the same tools they used to dampen inflation, in a reverse way, in order to create it.
And that’s where the problem lies…
For nearly two to three hundred years, the world had no inflation, yet the world was kind of an alright place. We had an industrial revolution and we still had negative price increases, but that did not stop people from getting wealthy.
Many people have been shouting from the rooftops that because of all the money that has been printed and is being printed, the world is going to see a huge amount of inflation, so please go and buy gold. But that scenario hasn’t played out…
Chapter one of the economic text book is that if you create a lot of money, you have got a problem. Chapter two is that there is actually another dimension to this and that is the velocity of money. If you have lots of money and if it happens to go around the world very very slowly it doesn’t have any impact. And that has been the point. The amount of money has gone up considerably but the velocity of money has come down. To date, again in the western world, there is little sign of the velocity improving. We are seeing this in the lending numbers. Even if banks have the appetite for lending money, nobody wants to borrow. Someone’s aged 55, and the job prospects are no wage growth, and the pension is tiny, I am not sure that even if you have gave him ten credit cards, he’ll go and use any of one of them. And that is the kind of thing that is happening in Europe and to some extent in the United States.
Yes that’s true…
The only money going into housing at the moment is the money coming from the institutional market, as they speculate. If you look at students coming out of college in the United States, they have come out way down with debt. There is again no way that they are going to go and take more loans from the bank because they have already done that in order to fund their education. So I do not seeturnover of money in the Western world.
There may be no inflation in everyday life but if you look at asset inflation, it has been huge.. That’s right. People just find stores of value. Gold went up as much as it did, in its last wave. If you look at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, in the art market, they are doing extremely well. The same is true about the property market. Places which are in the middle of a jungle in Africa, there prices have gone up to $100,000 an acre. Why? There is no communication. No power lines. It is just because people have money and are seeking out assets to save that money. Also, there has been cash.If you go to Dubai, 80% of the house purchases there, are in cash. So you don’t need the banks.
Can you tell us a little more on the Africa point you just made?
I did laugh when Rwanda came to Singapore to raise money for its first ever bond issue and people were just discovering these new bond markets to invest purely because they did not know what to do with their money. So someone said that I am building, you know in a Rwanda or a Nigeria, and people just ran with their cash, buying properties and buying up land wherever the policies of the government allowed. Sri Lanka again just closed the door on foreign investors because you start to get social problems as the local community cannot afford properties to live in. It was amazing how commercial many of these property markets became, even though in the past they were totally undiscovered. And as we have seen with many of them, you take considerable risk with the legal system. The world has got repriced. I always say that if you can find a three bedroom house below a $100,000-$150,000 in a major city, you are doing well anywhere in the world today.
In Mumbai you won’t find it even for that price..
Yes, though five years ago it was true. It is impossible now.

(The interview appeared in the Forbes India magazine edition dated Oct 4, 2013) 

Only big-bang diesel hike can save India from a downgrade

light-diesel-oil-250x250Vivek Kaul
Around a month back the under-recovery on every litre of diesel being sold by the oil marketing companies(OMCs) was Rs 9.29.
For the fortnight starting September 1, 2013, 
this has shot up by 30.5% to Rs 12.12 per litre. The under-recovery on cooking gas has gone up by 14.2% to Rs 470.38 per cylinder. The under-recovery on kerosene has gone up by 9.8% to Rs 36.33 per litre.
The OMCs are facing a total daily under-recovery of Rs 470.38 crore on the sale of diesel, kerosene and cooking gas. This is up by nearly 24.5% from a month earlier. The monthly under-recovery for the OMCs at the current level works out to a little over Rs 14,100 crore (Rs 470.38 crore x 30 days in a month).
So what are under-recoveries? The Rangarajan Committee report of 2006 stated that the OMCs are “are currently sourcing their products from the refineries on import parity basis which then becomes their cost price. The difference between the cost price and the realised price represents the under-recoveries of the OMCs.”
Realised price is essentially the price charged to the dealers by the OMCs. It is also referred to as the depot price. If the realised price fixed by the government is lower than the import price, then there is an under-recovery. Having said that under-recoveries are different from losses and at best can be defined as notional losses. (For those interested in a detailed treatment of this point,
 can click here).
The government has to compensate the OMCs for these under-recoveries. This is done in two ways. As 
A Citizen’s Guide to Energy Subsidies points out “a large part of these under-recoveries is compensated for by additional cash assistance from the government, while another portion is covered by financial assistance from upstream national oil companies.”
So oil producing companies like ONGC and Oil India Ltd compensate the OMCs like Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, for a part of their under-recoveries. The government directly compensates the OMCs for a large part of their under-recoveries. This means a higher expenditure for the government.
The under-recoveries on diesel have gone by more than 30% in a period of one month. At the same time the under-recoveries on kerosene and cooking gas have also gone up significantly. This implies that the under-recoveries for the OMCs on the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene, must have risen at a very fast pace.
Hence, the government will have to incur a higher expenditure to compensate the OMCs for the higher under-recoveries, in the months to come. A higher expenditure will lead to a higher fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is essentially the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
If the government wants to avoid this it will have to increase at least the price of diesel, given that it makes for a significant portion of the under-recoveries. 
A few days back the government had increased the price of diesel by 50 paisa per litre.
This increase is too small to help the government control its fiscal deficit in any way. If the government wants to make a reasonable attempt at controlling the fiscal deficit, then the price of diesel needs to be raised by at least Rs 5 per litre.
It is important that the government does this to show the world at large that it is serious about controlling its fiscal deficit. The finance minister P Chidambaram and the prime minister Manmohan Singh have both recently said that whatever needs to be done to maintain the targeted fiscal deficit of 4.8% of the GDP (gross domestic product) will be done.
Just making such statements is not enough. These statements need to be backed by concrete action and raising the price of diesel by at least Rs 5 per litre would be one such action. If it is not carried out, the chances of a sovereign downgrade of India by the rating agencies will become extremely high in the months to come. This is because the fiscal deficit of the government will bloat up.
A sovereign downgrade will see India’s rating being reduced to ‘junk’ status. This would lead to many foreign investors like pension funds having to sell out of the Indian stock market as well as the bond market, given that they are not allowed to invest in countries which have a “junk” status. When they sell out, they will will be paid in rupees. In order to repatriate this money, they will have to sell rupees and buy dollars. This will increase the demand for dollars and put further pressure on the rupee. As Swaminathan Aiyar put it 
in a recent column in The Times of India “People ask me, will the exchange rate go to Rs 70 to the dollar? I reply, why not Rs 80?”
A weaker rupee will mean that our oil import bill will shoot up further. We will also have to pay more for the import of coal, palm oil, fertilizer etc. Hence, it is important that the government ensures that we do not end up in this situation. If it does allow the fiscal deficit to bloat and the rupee to depreciate, essential imports will get costlier, and that will lead to a higher inflation along with a slowdown in economic growth. It will also cause problems for corporate India, which has raised a lot of foreign currency loans over the last few years. If the rupee depreciates, companies will have to pay more rupees to buy dollars to repay their foreign currency loans.
On the flip side an increase in price of diesel will also create its share of problems. “
Prices of diesel are controlled primarily to keep a check on the cascading inflationary impact of higher freight and transportation charges on the prices of essential commodities,” A Citizen’s Guide to Energy Subsidies points out. An increase in price of diesel will immediately translate into higher food prices, which is something that the government can ill-afford given that there are many state elections due over the next few months. Also food prices are not exactly low presently (This writer bought onions at Rs 50 a kg and tomatoes at Rs 40 a kg, yesterday). The government hence has to make a choice between the devil and the deep sea.
It is also important to explain here that the diesel prices in India are not low and the government is not offering any subsidies on it to the end consumer, as is often pointed out. 
As Surya P Sethi, a formerly Principal Adviser (Energy), Planning Commission, wrote in a 2010 article in the Economic and Political Weekly “This is yet another myth that permeates…most government discourse. Petrol and diesel prices are made up of the base price for the fuel and the taxes/levies imposed by the central and the state governments.”
Data from the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell shows that in 2012-2013, the petroleum sector contributed Rs 2,43,939 crore to the central government and the state governments. Of this a contribution of Rs 1,17,422 crore was at the central level and the remaining Rs 1,26,516 crore at the state level.
At the central level the money came in from the cess on crude oil, excise duty, corporate income tax, dividend income to central government etc. At the state level money primarily came in from sales tax/value added tax on petroleum products.
In comparison to the total income of Rs 2,43,939 crore made by the central and the state governments through the petroleum sector, the total under-recovery in 2012-2013, came in at Rs 1,61,029 crore. Given this, there was no real subsidy on offer to the end consumers, as is often made out to be. The consumers paid more than the cost price once the various taxes and duties are taken into account.
There are several problems here. One is that the OMCs were not able to recover enough money from the selling price of petroleum products ( except petrol), which makes them viable as a going concern. Hence, they need to be compensated for their under-recoveries.
Second, the entire Rs 2,43,939 crore, did not land up with the central government. And third, the Rs 1,17,422 crore that the central government earned from the petroleum sector in 2012-2013 wasn’t specifically earmarked to be adjusted against “under-recoveries” made by the OMCs. It was a part of the general revenues that the government earned during the course of the year and could be spent against any expenditure that the government had planned to incur during the course of the year.
Given this, any under-recovery leads to a higher expenditure for the central government and thus a higher fiscal deficit. A higher fiscal deficit needs to be controlled by increasing the price of diesel.
But that does not mean that the diesel that we have been buying is subsidised.

The article originally appeared on on September 3, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Why Moily’s idea of buying oil from Iran won’t work

M-Veerappa-Moily_0Vivek Kaul
India is thinking of importing more oil from Iran than it currently does. In a letter to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, oil minister Veerapa Moily, suggested that “An additional import of 11 million tonnes during 2013/14 would result in reduction in forex outflow by $8.47 billion (considering the international price of crude oil at $105 per barrel).” (As reported by Reuters).
This is because Iran accepts payments in rupees and not dollars as is the case with most of the other oil exporters. This will help India save precious foreign exchange.
While theoretically this idea makes immense sense, it is not really a solution that India will be able to execute. The United States and the European Union have placed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. As Reuters reports “U.S. and EU sanctions placed on Iran over its nuclear programme have reduced its oil exports more than half from pre-sanction levels of about 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd). In the first half of 2013, imports of Iranian oil from its four biggest buyers – China, India, Japan and South Korea – fell more than a fifth from a year ago to around 960,000 bpd.”
India’s oil imports from Iran have declined by 46% to 185,700 barrels per day during the first seven months of the year, in comparison to the same period last year. And this is because of the sanctions.
Oil is bought and sold internationally in dollars. This started sometime after the Second World War. President Franklin D Roosevelt realised that a regular supply of oil was very important for the well being of America or what came to be known as the great “American dream”.
After the end of the Second World War Roosevelt travelled quietly to USS Quincy
a ship anchored in the Red Sea. Here he was met by King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia, a country, which was by then home to the biggest oil reserves in the world.
The obsession of the Untied States with the automobile had led to a swift decline in domestic reserves, even though America was the biggest producer of oil in the world at that point of time. The country needed to secure another source of assured supply of oil. So in return for access to oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, King Ibn Sa’ud was promised full American military support to the ruling clan of Sa’ud. This oil was sold in dollars.
This was one of the major reasons behind the dollar becoming the international reserve currency. Every country in the world needed oil. And for countries that did not produce enough of their own oil they needed dollars they could use to buy oil from other countries.
This continued till the 1970s. In the seventies, after the end of the gold standard, the dollar started to lose value rapidly against other currencies and against gold. This meant that the purchasing power of the OPEC countries which sold oil in dollars and then used those dollars to import goods they did not produce, came down dramatically.
As William Greider writes in 
Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country “The dollar had already lost one-third of its value in only half a dozen years and seemed headed toward even steeper decline… Oil trades worldwide in dollars and if the U.S. was going to permit a free fall in the dollar’s value, that meant the oil-producing nations would received less and less real value for their commodity.”
One impact of this was OPEC countries raising the price of oil. Another impact was that some of the OPEC countries wanted to price oil in several currencies rather than just the American dollar. Jahangir Amuzegar, who was an economist by training, and had been a minister in the government of Iran, as well as a negotiator for OPEC, outlined some of these proposals in a 1978 article. In this article he outlined several currency combinations that could be used to price oil. Iraq, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela were in support of this plan.
The idea was not to be dependent on one currency, but a number of currencies and hence iron out any fluctuations in the value of one currency. Moving to a basket of currencies at that point of time clearly made sense for OPEC as far as future revenues were concerned.
As per estimates of the US department of treasury, Saudi Arabia, the largest member of OPEC, would have been better off if it had priced oil in a basket of currencies instead of the dollar, in all but 18 months since 1973.
So what was stopping Saudi Arabia and OPEC from moving to pricing oil in a basket of currencies rather than the dollar? As David E Spiro writes in 
The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony: Petrodollar Recycling and International Markets: “The Saudis, however, had the greatest proportion of dollar-denominated reserves in OPEC. This means that their reserves were diminished by the depreciation of the dollar (compared to the basket of their imports). But it also meant that they had the most to lose if a shift by OPEC to a basket of currencies threatened international confidence in the dollar. Having agreed to invest so much in dollars, the Saudis now shared a stake in maintaining the dollar as an international reserve currency. On the one hand dollars constituted 90% of Saudi government revenues in 1979, and those revenues were subject to the same fluctuations as the dollar. On the other hand, the Saudi investments were, roughly at same time 83% dollar denominated. The choice was whether to stabilise current revenues threatening the worth of all the past revenues (since invested in dollar assets).”
Also, as mentioned earlier, Roosevelt had stuck a deal with the ruling clan of Al Sa’uds. It is important to remember that the American security guarantee made by President Roosevelt after the Second World War was extended not to the people of Saudia Arabia nor to the government of Saudi Arabia but to the ruling clan of Al Sa’uds. So they had an intrest in selling oil in dollars and keeping the dollar going as an international reserve currency.
Also other than being the largest producer of oil Saudi Arabia also had the largest reserves among all OPEC countries. It had 39% of the proven OPEC reserves. Within OPEC it had the almost unquestioned support of what were known as the sheikhdom states of Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. These countries faced threats from other OPEC members like Iraq and Iran. For many years, Iraq had been eyeing Kuwait. It had tried to annex Kuwait in 1961 (and then again in the early 1990s).
Hence, the support of Saudi Arabia, the largest nation in the region, was important for them
If we added the reserves and production of the sheikdom countries which supported Saudi Arabia, they were together responsible for 50% of OPEC’s production and owned nearly 61% of its proven reserves. So, when Saudi Arabia made the decision that OPEC oil would be continued to be priced in dollars, there wasn’t much option for the other OPEC members but to follow what the largest member had decided.
What this brief history of oil tells us is that for dollar to continue being an international reserve currency, it is very important that oil continues to be sold in dollars. Other countries need to earn these dollars whereas the United States has the exorbitant privelege of simply printing them and spending them.
Iran has been trying to challenge this hegemoney of the dollar for a while now. It 
has been trying to move the buying and selling of oil away from the US dollar. In late 2007, Iran claimed to have moved all of its oil sales to non dollar currencies, with most of it being sold in euros and a small part in yen. There were no independent reports confirming the same.
The United States and Iran have been at each other’s throats since the 1979 revolution in Iran which overthrew the King. Lately there has been tension because of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the President of Iran till around a month back, has called the dollar “
a worthless piece of paper”. News reports suggest that Iran has started accepting renminbi from China and rubles from Russia in lieu of the oil that it exports to these countries.
In fact in a November 2007, summit of OPEC, Iran had suggested that OPEC oil should be sold in a basket of currencies rather than the American dollar. But it did not get the support of other members except Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, the late President of Venezuela, was known to be a vocal critic of the United States

On February 17,2008, Iran set up the Iranian Oil Bourse, for the trading of petroleum, petrochemicals and natural gas, in currencies other than dollar, primarily the euro and the Iranian rial. But the exchange since inception has not traded in oil but products made out of oil which are used as a feedstock in pharmaceutical and plastic industries.
Reports in the Iranian press suggested that the bourse started trading oil in non dollar currencies from March 20,2012. India wanted to pay for Iranian oil, either in gold or in rupees. If India paid in rupees, Iran could use those rupees to import goods from India.
This move to pay for oil in rupees or gold was a clear attempt to undermine the dollar in the buying and selling of oil, something that keeps the dollar at the heart of the international financial system. Hence, great pressure was applied by America on India to stop its oil imports from Iran and source its needs from some other producer.
India’s oil imports from Iran in April 2012 fell by 34.2% to 269,000 barrels per day from 409,000 barrels per day in March 2012. The government of India asked the Indian oil refiners to cut Iranian oil imports and they obliged.
What this tells us in a very clear way is that even though the US dollar may not be in the best of shape, but any attempts to mess around with its international ‘currency’ status will not be taken lying down. And for dollar to maintain its international currency status it is important that oil continues to be bought and sold in dollars.
So if the United States could pressurise India into cutting down its oil purchases from Iran in March 2012, it can do the same in September 2013. Any move away from dollar , which in turn will undermine access to “easy money” which has been so important to what is now called the American way of life.
Also it is best to remember that financially America might be in a mess, but by and large it still remains the only superpower in the world. In 2010, the United States spent $698billion on defence. This was 43% of the global total.
The article originally appeared on on September 2, 2013 

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Rupee at 64: It’s a Swadeshi crisis, not a foreign one

Vivek Kaul 
The government of India has tried to blame the recent depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar on everything but the state of the Indian economy. Rupee has fallen because Indians buy too much gold, we have often been told over the last few moths.
Rupee has fallen because foreign investors have been withdrawing money in response to the decision of the Federal Reserve of United States to go slow on money printing in the time to come, is another explanation which is often offered. While there is no denying that these factors have been responsible for the fall of the rupee, but the truth is a little more complicated than just that.
Mark Buchanan uses the term disequilibrium thinking in his new book Forecast – What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics. As he writes “one of the key concepts of disequilibrium thinking is the notion of ‘metastability’ which explains how a system can seem stable, yet actually be highly unstable, much like the sulfrous coating on a match, ready to explode if it receives the right kind of spark. Inherently unstable and dangerous situations can persist untroubled for very long periods, yet also guarantee eventual disaster.”
The situation in India was precisely like that. The rupee was more or less stable against the dollar between November 2012 and end of May 2013. It moved in the range of Rs 53.5-Rs 55.5 to a dollar. This stability in no way meant that all was well with the Indian economy.
In a discussion yesterday on NDTV, Ruchir Sharma, Head of Emerging Markets Equity and Global Macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, provided a lot of data to show just that. In 2007, the current account deficit of India stood at $8 billion. In technical terms, the current account deficit is the difference between total value of imports and the sum of the total value of its exports and net foreign remittances.
The foreign exchange reserves of India in 2007 stood at $300 billion. So the foreign exchange reserves were 37.5 times the current account deficit. For 2013, the current account deficit is at $90 billion whereas the foreign exchange reserves are down to around $275 billion. So the foreign exchange reserves are now just three times the size of the current account deficit, in comparison to 37.5 times earlier.
Another worrying point is the import cover (foreign exchange reserves/monthly imports). It currently stands at 5.5 months, the lowest in 15 years. This is very low in comparison to other emerging markets (like China has 18 months of import cover, Brazil has 11 months).
Now what does this mean in simple English? It means that the demand for dollars has gone up much faster than their supply. And this did not happen overnight. It did not happen towards the end of May, when the rupee rapidly started losing value against the dollar. The situation has deteriorated over the last five to six years, while the government was busy doing other things.
Sharma gave out some other numbers as well. In 2007,the short term debt (or debt that needs to be repaid during the course of the year) stood at $80 billion. Currently it stands at around $170 billion. As and when this debt matures, it will have to repaid (unless its rolled over) and that would mean more demand for dollars and a greater pressure on the rupee. Given this, its not surprising that analysts are now predicting that the rupee soon touch 70 to a dollar.
What remains to be seen is whether companies which need to repay this debt are allowed to roll it over. The situation is very tricky given that 25% of Indian companies do not have sufficient cash flow to repay interest on their loans. The amount of loans to be repaid by top 10 Indian corporates has gone up from Rs 1000 billion in 2007 to Rs 6000 billion in 2013. This makes the Indian economy very vulnerable.
Politicians like to compare the current situation to 1991 and tell us that the current situation is not a repeat of 1991. In 1991, the import cover was down to less than a month. Currently it is around 5-6 months (depending on whose calculation you refer to). Hence, the situation is not as bad as 1991.
But the import cover is just one parameter that one can look at. The current account deficit in 1991, stood at 2.5% of the gross domestic product. Currently its around 4.8% of the GDP. Hence, the situation is much worse on this front than in 1991.
The government has tried to control the fall of the rupee against the dollar by making it difficult for Indian companies as well as individuals to take dollars abroad. But that was already happening. The amount of money Indian corporates invested abroad in 2008, stood at $21 billion. It has since come down to $7 billion. The amount of money taken abroad by individuals through legal channels remains minuscule.
The point is that the Indian economy has been extremely vulnerable for sometime, “much like the sulfrous coating on a match, ready to explode if it receives the right kind of spark.” It is just that where the spark will come from leading to explosion of the match, is hard to predict in advance.
As Buchnan puts it “the disequilibrium view….explains in simple terms why the moment of collapse is hard to predict: the arrival of the key triggering event is typically a matter of chance.” And this matter of chance in the Indian context came when Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American Central Bank, addressed the Joint Economic Committee of the American Congress ,on May 23, 2013.
As he said “if we see continued improvement and we have confidence that that is going to be sustained, then we could in — in the next few meetings — we could take a step down in our pace of purchases.”
Over the last few years, the Federal Reserve has been pumping money into the American financial system by printing money and using it to buy bonds. This ensures that there is no shortage of money in the system, which in turn ensures low interest rates. The hope is that at lower interest rates people will borrow and spend more, and this in turn will revive economic growth.
After nearly 5 years, some sort of economic growth has started to comeback in the United States. And given this, the expectation is that the Federal Reserve will start going slow on money printing in the months to come. This has pushed interest rates up in the United States making it more interesting for big international investors to invest their money in the United States than India.
This has led to them withdrawing money from India. Since the end of May nearly $10 billion of foreign money has been withdrawn from the Indian bond market. When these bonds are sold, foreign investors get paid in rupees. They need to convert these rupees into dollars, in order to repatriate their money abroad. This puts pressure on the rupee.
And this is how the decision of the Federal Reserve to go slow on money printing in the days to come has led to the fall of the rupee. This is the story that the government officials and ministers have been trying to sell to us.
But the point to remember is that the decision of the Federal Reserve of United States to go slow on money printing was just the ‘spark’ that was needed to explode the ‘sulfrous coating on the match’ that the Indian economy had become. The spark could have come from somewhere else and the ‘sulfrous coating on the match’ would have still exploded leading to a crash of the rupee. Also, it is important to remember that foreign investors have not abandoned India lock, stock and barrel. When it comes to the bond market they have pulled out money to the tune of $10 billion. But they are still largely invested in the equity market. Since late May around $2 billion has been pulled out of the Indian equity market by the foreign investors. This when they have more than $200 billion invested in it.
Ruchir Sharma’s panelist in the NDTV discussion referred to earlier was Arun Shourie. He called the current rupee crisis a swadeshi crisis. It is time that the government realised this as well because the first step in solving any problem is recognising that it exists.
The article was originally published on on August 21, 2013.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)