RBI to Print Rs 1 Lakh Crore to Keep Government Happy

After Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust in September 2008, the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, came up with three rounds of large-scale asset purchases (LSAP). The LSAP was popularly referred to as quantitative easing or QE.

Yesterday, Shaktikanta Das, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced a similar sounding GSAP or G-sec acquisition programme, where G-sec stands for government securities. India now has its own planned QE. (At the risk of deviation, it’s not just the Indian film industry which copies the Americans, our central bank also does.)

The government of India issues financial securities known as government securities or government bonds, in order to finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends. Banks, insurance companies, non-banking finance companies, mutual funds and other financial institutions, buy these securities. Some are mandated to do so, others do it out of their own free will. 

What does GSAP entail? Like was the case with the Federal Reserve and the LSAP, the RBI will print money and buy government securities. For the first quarter of 2021-22 (April to June), the RBI has committed to buying government securities worth Rs 1 lakh crore. The first purchase under GSAP of Rs 25,000 crore will happen on April 15, later this month.

Why is this being done? Among other things, the RBI is also the debt manager for the central government. It manages government’s borrowing programme. After borrowing Rs 12.8 lakh crore in 2020-21, the government is expected to borrow another Rs 12.05 lakh crore in 2021-22. Due to the covid-pandemic and a general slowdown in tax revenues over the years, the government has had to borrow more in order to finance its expenditure and the fiscal deficit.

This information of the government having to borrow more than Rs 12 lakh crore again in 2021-22, came to light when the annual budget of the central government was presented on February 1. Due to this higher borrowing, the bond market immediately wanted a higher return from government securities.

The return (or yield to maturity as it is more popularly know) on 10-year government securities as of January 29, had stood at 5.95%. By February 22, the return had jumped to 6.2% or gone up by 25 basis points, in a matter of a few weeks. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. 

The yield to maturity on a security is the annual return an investor can expect when he buys a security at a particular price, on a particular day and holds on to it till its maturity.

As the latest monetary policy report of the RBI released yesterday points out: “Yields spiked following the announcement of government borrowings of  Rs12.05 lakh crore for 2021-22 and additional borrowing of Rs 80,000 crore for 2020-21.”

In May 2020, the government had announced that it would borrow a total of Rs 12 lakh crore in 2020-21. When the budget was presented, the government said that it would end up borrowing Rs 12.8 lakh crore or Rs 80,000 crore more. 

At any given point of time, the financial system can only lend a given amount of money. When the demand for money goes up, it is but natural that the return expected by the lenders will also go up. This led to the bond market demanding a higher rate of return on government securities, pushing up the yields or returns on government securities.

How did this become a bother for the government? When the returns on existing government securities go up, the RBI has to offer higher rates of interest on the fresh financial securities that it plans to issue on behalf of the government to fund the fiscal deficit. This pushes up the interest bill of the government, which the government is trying to minimise. 

Government securities are deemed to be the safest form of lending. Once returns on these securities go up, the interest rates in general across the economy tend to go up, which is not something that the RBI wants at this point of time. The hope is that lower interest rates will help the economy revive faster.

As the debt manager of the government, it’s the RBI’s job to offer the best possible deal to its main client. Hence, post the budget, the RBI got into the job quickly and to drive down returns on government securities launched an open market operation (OMO). As the monetary policy report points out: “Yields subsequently eased somewhat on the back of… the OMO purchases for an enhanced amount of Rs 20,000 crore on February 10, 2021.”

In an OMO, the RBI prints money and buys government securities from those institutions who are willing to sell them. The idea here is to pump more money into the financial system and in the process ensure that yields or returns on government securities go down.

With the GSAP, the RBI has just taken this idea forward. While the GSAP is not very different from the OMOs that the RBI carries out, it is more of an upfront commitment and clear communication from the RBI that it will do whatever it takes to ensure that yields on government securities don’t go up. Like between April and June, the RBI plans to print and pump Rs 1 lakh crore into the financial system. 

Let me make a slight deviation here. In this case, the RBI is also indirectly financing the government’s fiscal deficit. As the debt manager for the government, the RBI sells fresh securities to raise money in order to help the government finance its fiscal deficit.

These securities are bought by various financial institutions. When they do this, they have handed over money to the RBI, which credits the government’s account with it. In the process, the financial institutions as a whole have that much lesser money to lend for the long-term.

By printing money and pumping it into the financial system, the RBI ensures that the money that financial institutions have available for lending for the long-term, doesn’t really go down or doesn’t go down as much,

Hence, in that sense, the RBI is actually indirectly financing the government borrowing. (It’s just buying older bonds and not newer ones directly). A reading of business press tells me that the bond market expects more money printing by the RBI during the course of the year. One particular estimate going around is that of more than Rs 3 lakh crore. In that sense, even if the RBI prints Rs 3 lakh crore, it will indirectly finance around a fourth of the government borrowing given that it is scheduled to borrow Rs 12.05 lakh crore in 2021-22. 

Now getting back to the topic. Like in any OMO, while carrying out a GSAP operation, the RBI will print money and buy government securities. In the process, it will put money into the financial system. This will ensure that returns on government securities don’t go up. In the process, the government will end up borrowing at lower rates.

This is how the RBI plans to keeps its main customer happy. It needs to be mentioned here that with the second wave of covid spreading across the country, chances are economic recovery will take a backseat and the government will have trouble raising tax revenues like it did in 2020-21, the last financial year.

This might lead to increased borrowing on the government front. Increased borrowing without the RBI interfering will definitely lead to the bond market demanding higher returns from government securities. With the GSAP, the hope is that yields or returns on government securities will continue to remain low.

It is worth remembering that Shaktikanta Das’ three year term as the RBI Governor comes to an end later this year. Hence, at least until then, it makes sense for Das to keep Delhi happy.

Of course, the money printing leading to lower return on government securities, will also ensure that the interest you, dear reader, earn on your fixed deposits, will continue to remain low, and the real rate of interest after adjusting for the prevailing inflation, will largely be in negative territory. 

As mentioned earlier, lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. And if that lending can be carried out at low rates, the other rates will also remain low. This is the cost of the RBI trying to help the government, the corporates and the individual borrowers. It comes at the cost of savers. This is interest that the savers would have otherwise earned.

It is as if the RBI is telling the savers, don’t have your money lying around in deposits. Chase a higher return. Buy stocks. Buy bitcoin. 

If the RBI had let the interest rates find their own level, with the government borrowing more, the interest rates would have gone up and helped the savers earn a higher return on their deposits. This would have also encouraged consumption, especially among those individuals whose expenditure depends on interest income. The argument offered by economists over and over again is that lower interest rates lead to higher borrowing and faster economic recovery.

Let’s take a look at this in the case of bank lending to industry. As of February 2021, the total bank lending to industry stood Rs 27.86 lakh crore. As of February 2016, five years back, the total bank lending to industry had stood at Rs 27.45 lakh crore.

Over a period of five years, the net bank lending to industry has gone up by a minuscule Rs 40,731 crore or just 1.5%. Meanwhile, the interest rate on fresh rupee loans given by banks during the same period has fallen from 10.54% to 8.19%, a fall of 235 basis points.

So much for corporates borrowing more at lower interest rates. This is their revealed preference; the actions that they are taking and not the bullshit that they keep mouthing on TV and in the business media. Currently, the Indian corporate simply isn’t confident enough about the country’s economic future and that’s the reason for not borrowing and expanding, irrespective of the public posturing. 

Anyway, the point is not that higher interest rates are required. But the point is that if the RBI did not intervene like it has been doing, by printing money and buying bonds, slightly higher interest rates which would put the real interest rate in positive territory, would have been the order of the day. And that would have been better than the prevailing situation. A little better for the savers about whom neither the RBI nor the government seems to be bothered about.

But then as I said earlier, the government is the RBI’s main customer these days. And that’s the long and the short of it.

Is Federal Reserve Getting Ready for an ‘Easy Money’ Confrontation with Donald Trump?

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We were at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, attending the Equitymaster conference over the last two days. Overlooking the dark waters of the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India, as we ate, talked and heard, we also sat back and thought about how the end of the easy money era would play out.

As we heard Marc Faber and Ajit Dayal lay out their ideas, we got more ideas. And we came to an old conclusion, all over again: forecasting, especially about the future, is a difficult business. But then someone’s got to take a shot at it. Everyone in the investing world cannot be cautiously optimistic. We have clearly have had enough of that term.

So how is this end of the era of easy money, likely to play out? The Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, has started shrinking its massive balance sheet from October 2017 onwards. Between October 3, 2017 and January 29, 2018, the Federal Reserve has shrunk its balance sheet by around $40 billion, we can see that from the Fed documents. But there is still a long way to go, given that the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is still more than $4.4 trillion.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in September 2008, once the Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust, and many other financial institutions in the Western world almost went down with it, the Federal Reserve decided to print a lot of money. But just printing money wasn’t enough, this money, had to be pumped into the financial system as well.

This printed money (or rather created digitally) was pumped into the financial system by buying American treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities. American treasury bonds are bonds issued by the American government in order to finance its fiscal deficit, or the difference between what it earns and what it spends.

Mortgage backed securities are essentially securitised financial securities which are derived from mortgages (i.e. home loans). As of September 1, 2008, the Federal Reserve had assets worth $905 billion. As it got around to buying treasury bonds and mortgaged backed securities, it expanded its balance sheet very quickly. The size of Federal Reserve’s balance sheet peaked at $4.51 trillion, towards the end of December 2016.

The idea was that all this money floating around in the financial system would drive interest rates low and keep them there. This happened. Over and above this, the hope was that the companies would use low interest rates as an opportunity to borrow, invest and expand. This would create jobs and employment, would lead to spending and create faster economic growth.

The companies didn’t quite behave the way they were expected to. Yes, they did borrow. But they borrowed to buyback their shares and reduce the number of outstanding shares, and hence, pushed up their earnings per share.

These buybacks essentially benefitted the rich Americans who owned shares. The benefits were two-fold. First, they had an opportunity to sell their shares back to the companies buying them. And second, as the stock market rallied because of improved earnings and all the money floating around, those who owned shares benefitted.
But this wasn’t really what the Federal Reserve had hoped. The consumers were also supposed to borrow and spend at low interest rates. But that didn’t quite play out the way the Federal Reserve had hoped.

What happened instead was that large financial institutions borrowed money at very low interest rates and invested them in stock and bond markets all over the world, including India. These trades are referred to as the dollar carry trade. This led to stock markets rallying all over the world, irrespective of the fact whether the earnings of the companies were improving or not.

The Federal Reserve has decided to gradually start withdrawing all the money that it has put into the global financial system. Between October and December 2017, it planned to sell treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities worth $10 billion. Between January and March 2018, this will go up to $20 billion a month. Between April and June 2018, this will go up to $30 billion a month. Between July and September 2018, the Federal Reserve plans to sell bonds worth $40 billion a month. After that the amount will rise to $50 billion a month.[i]

How does the actual evidence look like? As mentioned earlier in the piece, the Federal Reserve had managed to shrink its balance sheet by $40 billion between October 3, 2017 and January 29, 2018. From the looks of it, the Federal Reserve seems to be doing what it said it would do. Nevertheless, these are early days.

In 2018, the Federal Reserve is expected to shrink its balance sheet by $420 billion and 2019 onwards, the balance sheet is expected to shrink by $600 billion a year. With the Federal Reserve taking money out of the financial system, there will be lesser money going around, this is likely to push up interest rates. In fact, the yield (i.e. return) on the 10-year treasury bond has crossed 2.85%. This yield acts as a benchmark for other kinds of lending, simply because lending to the American government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. With interest rates expected to go up, the carry trades are expected to become unviable. This will lead money being withdrawn from stock and bond markets all over the world.

In fact, regular readers would know that we have already discussed a large part of what has been written up until now. But now comes the completely crazy part. The United States government is expected to borrow $955 billion, during the course of this year, to meet its expenses. It is further expected to borrow a trillion dollars, in each of the next two years. Basically, the American government needs to borrow close to $3 trillion between 2018 and 2020.

During the same period, the Federal Reserve is working towards withdrawing more than $1.6 trillion ($420 billion in 2018 + $600 billion in 2019 + $600 billion in 2020) from the financial system. In this scenario, when the Federal Reserve is withdrawing money from the financial system and the government needs to borrow a huge amount of money, it is but logical that the interest rates in the United States are going to go up.

This will impact the carry trades. Hence, stock markets and bond markets will have a tough time all over the world. Of course, all this comes with the assumption that the Federal Reserve will continue doing what it is. The question is will it continue to withdraw the printed money it has pumped into the financial system?

Now this is where things get really interesting. The American society as a large is a highly indebted one. The total household debt of the Americans as of September 30, 2017, stood at $12.96 trillion. The debt has been going up for 13 consecutive quarters now. This debt includes, home loans, auto loans, student loans, credit cards outstanding, etc.
Hence, rising interest rates will hurt the average American as the EMIs will go up. It will also hurt the American government which is in the process of borrowing more, in the years to come. Governments, because they borrow as much as they do, as a thumb rule, like low interest rates.

In this scenario, if the Federal Reserve continues withdrawing the printed money, it is more than likely to run into a confrontation with the American president Donald Trump. Trump has only recently chosen Jerome Powell as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, after Janet Yellen. One school of thought seems to suggest that Powell, given that he has been appointed by Trump, is likely to bat for Trump and go easy on withdrawing money from the financial system, and allowing interest rates to go up. But it is not just up to him. The American monetary policy is decided by the Federal Monetary Policy Committee (FOMC), which has Powell and 12 other members.

In fact, even if that Powell does not bat for Trump, the FOMC might still vote to go slow on allowing interest rates to rise. Ultimately, the Federal Reserve has to ensure that the American economy continues to remain on a stable footing. If rising interest rates end up hurting the American economy, the FOMC will have to react accordingly. No Federal Reserve decisions are written in stone and can always be changed.

The question is how quickly is this likely to happen? Now that is a very difficult question to answer. But my best guess (and I use the word very very carefully here) is that during the second half of the year, the Federal Reserve might have to reverse its policy of taking out all the money that it has put into the global financial institution.

Up until then, a lot of damage will be done to the stock and bond markets around the world. The funny thing is that though the Federal Reserve is now pulling out money to let interest rates rise, the European Central Bank continues to buy bonds issued by its member governments and the 10-year government bond yields of European countries, is significantly lower than that of United States.

What does this mean in an Indian context? Unless, the American Federal Reserve reverses its current policy, the Indian stocks are going to have a tough time. That is a given. What happens next, if and when Federal Reserve changes track? Will another easy money start? On that your guess is as good as ours.
Let’s watch and wait!
[i] https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/monetary20170614a.htm

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on February 12, 2018.

Janet Yellen raises interest rates. What happens next?

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In the column dated December 16, 2015, I had said that the Federal Reserve of the United States would raise the federal funds rate, at the end of its meeting which was scheduled on December 15-16, 2015. That was the easy bit given that Janet Yellen, chairperson of the Federal Reserve of the United States, had more or less made this clear in a speech she made on December 3, 2015.

The Federal Open Market Committee(FOMC) of the Federal Reserve of the United States raised the federal funds rate by 25 basis points (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) to be in the range of 0.25-0.5%. Earlier, the federal funds rate moved in the range of 0-0.25%. FOMC is a committee within the Federal Reserve which runs the monetary policy of the United States

The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans. This is the first time that the FOMC has raised the federal funds rate since mid-2006.

I had also said that the Yellen led FOMC would make it very clear that the increase in the federal funds rate would happen at a very gradual pace. The statement released by the FOMC said that it expects the “economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.”

As Yellen put it in central banking parlance in the press conference that followed the Federal Reserve meeting: “The monetary policy will continue to remain accomodative”. In fact, the members of the FOMC expect the federal funds rate to be at 1.4% in a year, 2.4% in two years and 3.3% in three years.

If the federal funds rate has to be at 1.4% one year down the line, then it means that the FOMC will have to raise the federal funds rate by around 25 basis points each (one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) four times next year. This seems to be a little difficult given that the presidential elections are scheduled in the United States next year. Also, there are other problems that this could create.

The low interest rate policy was unleashed by the Federal Reserve in the aftermath of the financial crisis which started in September 2008, when Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust. The hope was that both households and corporations would borrow and spend more and in the process, economic growth would return.

What has happened? The household debt to gross domestic product(GDP) ratio has been falling since the beginning of 2009 as can be seen from the accompanying chart.

 

The household debt to GDP ratio has fallen from around 98% of the GDP at the beginning of 2009, around the time the financial crisis had just started to around 79.8% of the GDP now. What this tells us is that the household debt as a proportion of the total economy has come down. This despite low interest rates being prevalent when at least theoretically people should have borrowed and spent more money.

Take a look at the following chart. It shows that the proportion of the disposable income that Americans are paying to service their debts has also improved. In end 2007, Americans were spending 13.1% of their disposable income to service debt. It has since fallen to 10.1%, though it has jumped a little in the recent past. But the broader trend is clearly down.

What these two graphs tell us clearly is that the household debt in the United States has come down in the aftermath of the financial crisis. So if households have not been borrowing who has? The answer is corporates.

As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale wrote in a research note in November: “The primary driver for the rapid rise in bank lending…has been borrowing by US corporates and we all know they have been using the Fed’s free money not to invest in capacity expanding expenditures, but rather to buy back mountains of their own shares…Corporate debt borrowing at an $674bn annual rate [is] closing in rapidly on the all-time borrowing splurge of 2007!

In another note released after the FOMC decision to raise the federal funds rate Edwards writes that “the real rate of corporate borrowing is even greater than was seen during the late 1990s tech bubble.”

American corporates have borrowed at rock bottom interest rates not to expand their capacities by building more factories among other things, but to buy back their shares. When a corporate buys back and extinguishes its own shares, fewer number of shares remain in the open market. This pushes up the earnings per share of the company. This in turn pushes up the share price. A higher earnings per share leads to a higher market price.

As a result of all this borrowing, the US corporate debt has reached 70% of the GDP, around the level it was at the time the financial crisis started. A Goldman Sachs research note points out that between 2007 and now, the total borrowing of the US corporates has doubled.

Nevertheless, all this money needs to be repaid. And this will become increasingly difficult with sales of US corporates falling. As Edwards writes in his latest research note: “It doesn’t help that both corporate profits and revenues are now falling…Nominal business sales have been contracting all year. Originally, it was put down to unseasonably cold weather – but the chilly data has just not gone away, as a combination of unit labour costs and weak pricing power have led to a typical late cycle decline in profit margins.”

If the Federal Reserve keeps increasing the federal funds rate, the interest rate that American corporates need to pay on their debt will keep going up as well.

The interest rate that the American corporates have been paying on their debt has fallen from 6% in 2009 to around 4% in 2015. A higher interest rate would mean a further fall in the profit made by American companies. Lower earnings would lead to lower stock prices and lower broader index levels.

And this is not something that the Federal Reserve would want. A falling stock market because of higher interest rates would jeopardise the American economic recovery.

As Yellen said in her speech earlier this month: “Household spending growth has been particularly solid in 2015, with purchases of new motor vehicles especially strong….Increases in home values and stock market prices in recent years, along with reductions in debt, have pushed up the net worth of households, which also supports consumer spending. Finally, interest rates for borrowers remain low, due in part to the FOMC’s accommodative monetary policy, and these low rates appear to have been especially relevant for consumers considering the purchase of durable good.”

Once we factor in all this, it is safe to say that the Federal Reserve will go really slow at increasing interest rates. In fact, I don’t see it increasing the federal funds rate to 1.4% by the end of next year. This means good news for Indian stock and bond markets, at least for the time being.
The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on December 18, 2015

Why The Rupee Is Falling Despite The Oil Price Collapse

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As I write this one dollar is worth around Rs 67.1. The last time the rupee went so low against the dollar was sometime in late August 2013. Is this a reason to worry?

In August 2013, the oil prices were at a really high level. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil on August 23, 2013, had stood at $109.16 per barrel. As on December 14, 2015, the price of the Indian basket stood at $34.39 per barrel, down by 68.5% since then.

One of the reasons for the fall of the rupee back then was the high oil price. India imports 80% of the oil that it consumes. Oil is bought and sold internationally in dollars. When Indian oil marketing companies buy oil they pay in dollars. This pushes up the demand for dollars and drives down the value of the rupee against the dollar. This happened between May and August 2013, as the price of oil shot up by close to 11%.

Further, those were the days of high inflation. The consumer price inflation in August 2013 had stood at 9.52%. In order to hedge against this high inflation people had been buying gold. India produces very little gold of its own.

In 2013-2014(April 2013 to March 2014) India produced 1411 kgs of gold. In contrast, the country imported 825 tonnes of gold during 2013. Gold, like oil, is bought and sold internationally in dollars. When Indian importers buy gold, like is the case with oil, it pushes up the demand for dollars and in the process drives down the value of the rupee. This phenomenon also played out in 2013.

Hence, the high price of oil and the demand for gold, drove down the value of the rupee against the dollar, between late May 2013 and late August 2013. But these reasons are not valid anymore. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil is less than $35 per barrel. And the demand for gold is subdued at best.

So what exactly is driving down the value of the rupee against the dollar? In order to understand this, we need to go back to the period between May 2013 and August 2013. While gold and oil played a part in driving down the value of the rupee against the dollar, there was a third factor at work as well. And this was the major factor.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis which started in the September 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust, Western central banks led by the Federal Reserve of the United States, cut their interest rates to close to zero percent. Ben Bernanke, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, was instrumental in this.

The idea was that at low interest rates people will borrow and spend more, and economic growth would return in the process. While that happened, what also happened was that financial institutions borrowed money at low interest rates and invested it in financial markets all over the world.

In May 2013 just a few months before his term as the Chairman of the Fed was coming to an end Bernanke hinted that the “easy money” policy being followed by the Federal Reserve could come to an end. This meant that interest rates would go up in the months to come.

If the interest rates went up, the financial institutions would have had to pay a higher rate of interest on their borrowings. This would mean that the trade of borrowing at low interest rates in the United States and investing across the world, wouldn’t be as profitable as it was in the past.

This led  foreign financial institutions to start selling out of financial markets around the world including India. Between June and August 2013, the foreign institutional investors sold stocks and bonds worth Rs 75,291 crore in the Indian stock market as well as debt market.

They were paid in rupees when they sold their investments in stocks as well as bonds. They had to convert these rupees into dollars. In order to do that they had to sell rupees and buy dollars. When they did that, the demand for the dollar went up. In the process the value of the rupee against the dollar crashed. One dollar was worth around Rs 55 in middle of May 2013. By late August it had almost touched Rs 69.

In the end the Federal Reserve did not raise interest rates, the Reserve Bank of India got its act together and the value of the rupee against the dollar stabilised in the range of Rs 58-62 to a dollar.

What did not happen in May 2013 is likely to happen on December 16, 2015 i.e. tomorrow. It is likely that Janet Yellen, the current Chairperson of the Federal Reserve, will raise interest rates. This means that the financial institutions which have borrowed in the United States and have invested across the world, would have to pay a higher rate of interest on their borrowings. This may make their trades unviable.

Also, financial markets do not wait for central banks to make decisions. They try and guess which way the decision will go and make their investment decisions accordingly. It is now widely expected that the Fed will raise interest rates tomorrow. Given that, the foreign financial investors have been selling out of the Indian financial markets since November. Between November and now, the foreign institutional investors have sold stocks and bonds worth Rs 15,035 crore. In the process of converting this money into dollars, the value of the rupee has been driven down against the dollar.

At the beginning of November, one dollar was worth around Rs 65, now it is worth more than Rs 67. Also, as the rupee loses value, the foreign institutional investors lose money. Let’s say an investment is worth Rs 65 crore. If one dollar is worth Rs 65, then this investment is worth $10 million. If one dollar is worth Rs 67, then this investment is worth only $9.7 million. In order to prevent such losses, bonds investors are selling out of Indian stocks and bonds. And this is pushing down the value of the rupee. So after a point, the rupee loses value because the rupee loses value.

The trouble is that Indian politicians have turned the value of the rupee against the dollar into a prestige issue. But what is worth remembering here is that we live in a word where things are connected and given that the value of a currency is bound to fluctuate. Sometimes the fluctuation will be higher than usual. But that doesn’t mean that things are going wrong.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared on Huffington Post India on December 15, 2015

Yellen led Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, but very gradually

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Up until now every time the Federal Open Market Committee has had a meeting, I have maintained that Janet Yellen, the Chairperson of the Federal Reserve of the United States, will not raise interest rates. The latest meeting of the FOMC is currently on (December 15-16, 2015) and I feel that in all probability Janet Yellen and the FOMC will raise the federal funds rate at the end of this meeting.

The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.

So why do I think that the Yellen led FOMC will raise the interest rate now? Two major economic indicators that the FOMC looks at are unemployment and inflation. Price stability and maximum employment is the dual mandate of the Federal Reserve.

There are various ways in which the bureau of labour standards in the United States measures unemployment. This ranges from U1 to U6. The official rate of unemployment is U3, which is the proportion of the civilian labour force that is unemployed but actively seeking employment.
U6 is the broadest definition of unemployment and includes work­ers who want to work full-time but are working part-time because there are no full-time jobs available. It also includes “discouraged workers,” or people who have stopped looking for work because the economic conditions the way they are make them believe that no work is available for them.

U6 touched a high of 17.2 percent in October 2009, when U3, which is the official unemployment rate, was at 10 percent. Nevertheless, things have improved since then. In October and November 2015, the U3 rate of unemployment stood at 5% of the civilian labour force. The U6 rate of unemployment stood at 9.8% and 9.9% respectively. This is a good improvement since October 2009, six years earlier.

In fact, the gap between U3 and the U6 rate of unemployment has narrowed down considerably. As John Mauldin writes in a research note titled Crime in the Job Report with respect to the unemployment figures of October 2015: “The gap between the two measures [i.e. U3 and U6] is now the smallest in more than seven years, a sign that slack in the labour market is diminishing. And as the Fed weighs a potential rate hike, what may be more important is the number of people working part-time who would prefer to work full-time – that number posted its biggest two-month decline since 1994. Janet Yellen has referred to this number as often as she has to any other specific number. It is on her radar screen.”

In fact, Janet Yellen seems to be feeling reasonably comfortable about the employment numbers. As she said in a speech dated December 2, 2015: “The unemployment rate, which peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, declined to 5 percent in October of this year…The economy has created about 13 million jobs since the low point for employment in early 2010.

Another indicator that has improved is the number of people who want to work full time but can’t because there are no jobs going around. As Yellen said: “Another margin of labour market slack not reflected in the unemployment rate consists of individuals who report that they are working part time but would prefer a full-time job and cannot find one–those classified as “part time for economic reasons.” The share of such workers jumped from 3 percent of total employment prior to the Great Recession to around 6-1/2 percent by 2010. Since then, however, the share of these part time workers has fallen considerably and now is less than 4 percent of those employed.”

On the flip side what most economists and analysts don’t like to talk about is the fact that the labour force participation rate in the United States has fallen. In November 2015 it stood at 62.5%, against 62.9% a year earlier. It had stood at 66% in September 2008, when the financial crisis started.
Labour force participation rate is essentially the proportion of population which is economically active. A drop in the rate essentially means that over the years Americans have simply dropped out of the workforce having not been able to find a job. Hence, they are not measured in total number of unemployed people and the unemployment numbers improve to that extent.

This negative data point notwithstanding things are looking up a bit. With the U3 unemployment rate down to 5% and U6 down to less than 10%, companies, “in order to entice additional workers, businesses may have to think about paying more money,” writes Mauldin.

And this means wage inflation or the rate at which wages rise, is likely to go up in the days to come. The wage inflation will push up general inflation as well as buoyed by an increase in salaries people are likely buy more goods and services, push up demand and thus push up prices. At least that is how it should play out theoretically.

As Yellen said in a speech earlier this month: “Less progress has been made on the second leg of our dual mandate–price stability–as inflation continues to run below the FOMC’s longer-run objective of 2 percent. Overall consumer price inflation–as measured by the change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures–was only 1/4 percent over the 12 months ending in October.”

But a major reason for low inflation has been a rapid fall in the price of oil over the last one year. How does the inflation number look minus food and energy prices? As Yellen said: “Because food and energy prices are volatile, it is often helpful to look at inflation excluding those two categories–known as core inflation…But core inflation–which ran at 1-1/4 percent over the 12 months ending in October–is also well below our 2 percent objective, partly reflecting the appreciation of the U.S. dollar. The stronger dollar has pushed down the prices of imported goods, placing temporary downward pressure on core inflation.”

In fact, the fall in the price of oil has also brought down the fuel and energy costs of businesses. This has led to a fall in the prices of non-energy items as well. “Taking account of these effects, which may be holding down core inflation by around 1/4 to 1/2 percentage point, it appears that the underlying rate of inflation in the United States has been running in the vicinity of 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent,” said Yellen.

In fact, a careful reading of the speech that Yellen made on December 2, clearly tells us that she was setting the ground for raising the federal funds rate when the FOMC met later in the month.

On December 3, 2015, Yellen made a testimony to the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress. In this testimony she exactly repeated something that she had said a day earlier in the speech. As she said: “That initial rate increase would reflect the Committee’s judgment, based on a range of indicators, that the economy would continue to grow at a pace sufficient to generate further labour market improvement and a return of inflation to 2 percent, even after the reduction in policy accommodation. As I have already noted, I currently judge that U.S. economic growth is likely to be sufficient over the next year or two to result in further improvement in the labour market. Ongoing gains in the labour market, coupled with my judgment that longer-term inflation expectations remain reasonably well anchored, serve to bolster my confidence in a return of inflation to 2 percent as the disinflationary effects of declines in energy and import prices wane.”

This is the closest that a Federal Reserve Chairperson or for that matter any central governor, can come to saying that he or she is ready to raise interest rates. My bet is that the Yellen led FOMC will raise rates at the end of the meeting which is currently on.

Nevertheless, this increase in the federal funds rate will be sugar coated and Yellen is likely to make it very clear that the rate will be raised at a very slow pace. This is primarily because the American economy is still not out of the woods.

The economic recovery remains fragile and heavily dependent on low interest rates. Net exports (exports minus imports) remain weak due to a stronger dollar. Yellen feels that this has subtracted nearly half a percentage point from growth this year.

In this environment economic growth in the United States will be heavily dependent on consumer spending, which in turn will depend on how low interest rates continue to remain. As Yellen said in her recent speech: “Household spending growth has been particularly solid in 2015, with purchases of new motor vehicles especially strong….Increases in home values and stock market prices in recent years, along with reductions in debt, have pushed up the net worth of households, which also supports consumer spending. Finally, interest rates for borrowers remain low, due in part to the FOMC’s accommodative monetary policy, and these low rates appear to have been especially relevant for consumers considering the purchase of durable good.”

This again is a clear indication of the fact that the federal funds rate in particular and interest rates in general will continue to remain low in the years to come.

As Yellen had said in a speech she made in March earlier this year: “However, if conditions do evolve in the manner that most of my FOMC colleagues and I anticipate, I would expect the level of the federal funds rate to be normalized only gradually, reflecting the gradual diminution of headwinds from the financial crisis.”

I expect her to make a statement along similar lines either as a part of the FOMC statement or in the press conference that follows or both.

(The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on December 16, 2015)