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) 


The only stock tip you will ever need: Watch the Dow

Vivek Kaul
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), America’s premier stock market index, has been quoting at all-time-high levels. On 7 March 2013, it closed at 14,329.49 points. This has happened in an environment where the American economy and corporate profitability has been down in the dumps.
The Indian stock markets too are less than 10 percent away from their all-time peaks even though the economy will barely grow at 5 percent this year.
All the easy money created by the Federal Reserve is landing up in the stock market. So the stock market is going up because there is too much money chasing stocks. ReutersIn this scenario, should one  dump stocks or buy them?
The short answer is simple: as long as the other markets are doing fine, we will do fine too. The Indian market’s performance is more closely linked to the fortunes of other stock markets than to Indian economic performance.
So watch the world and then invest in the Sensex or Nifty. You can’t normally go wrong on this.
Let’s see how the connection between the real economy and the stock market has broken down after the Lehman crisis.
The accompanying chart below proves a part of the point I am trying to make. It tells us that the total liabilities of the American government are huge and currently stand at 541 percent of GDP. The American GDP is around $15 trillion. Hence the total liability of the American government comes to around $81 trillion (541 percent of $15 trillion).
Source: Global Strategy Weekly, Cross Asset Research, Societe Generate, March 7, 2013
Source: Global Strategy Weekly, Cross Asset Research, Societe Generate, March 7, 2013
The total liability of any government includes not only the debt that it currently owes to others but also amounts that it will have to pay out in the days to come and is currently not budgeting for.
Allow me to explain.  As economist Laurence Kotlikoff wrote in a column in July last year, “The 78 million-strong baby boom generation is starting to retire in droves. On average, each retiring boomer can expect to receive roughly $35,000, adjusted for inflation, in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. Multiply $35,000 by 78 million pairs of outstretched hands and you get close to $3 trillion per year in costs.”
The $3trillion per year that the American government needs to pay its citizens in the years to come will not come out of thin air. In order to pay out that money, the government needs to start investing that money now. And that is not happening. Hence, this potential liability in the years to come is said to be unfunded. But it’s a liability nonetheless. It is an amount that the American government will owe to its citizens. Hence, it needs to be included while calculating the overall liability of the American government.
So the total liabilities of the American government come to around $81 trillion. The annual world GDP is around $60 trillion. This should give you, dear reader, some sense of the enormity of the number that we are talking about.
And that’s just one part of the American economic story. In the three months ending December 2012, the American GDP shrank by 0.1 percent. The “U3” measure of unemployment in January 2013 stood at 7.9 percent of the labour force. 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 the 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 economic conditions make them believe that no work is available for them. This number for January, 2013, stood at 14.4  percent.
The business conditions are also deteriorating. As Michael Lombardi of Profit Confidential recently wrote, “As for business conditions, they appear bright only if you look at the stock market. In reality, they are deteriorating in the US economy. For the first quarter of 2013, the expectations of corporate earnings of companies in the S&P 500 have turned negative. Corporate earnings were negative in the third quarter of 2012, too.”
The average American consumer is not doing well either. “Consumer spending, hands down the biggest contributor of economic growth in the US economy, looks to be tumbling. In January, the disposable income of households in the US economy, after taking into consideration inflation and taxes, dropped four percent—the biggest single-month drop in 20 years!,” writes Lombardi.
Consumption makes up for nearly 70 percent of the American GDP. And when the American consumer is in the mess that he is where is the question of economic growth returning?
So why is the stock market rallying then? A stock market ultimately needs to reflect the prevailing business and economic conditions, which is clearly not the case currently.
The answer lies in all the money that is being printed by the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank. Currently, the Federal Reserve prints $85 billion every month, in a bid to keep long-term interest rates on hold and get the American consumer to borrow again. The size of its balance-sheet has touched nearly $3 trillion. It was at around $800 billion at the start of the financial crisis in September 2008.
As Lombardi puts it, “When trillions of dollars in paper money are created out of thin air and interest rates are simultaneously reduced to zero, where else would investors put their money?”
All the easy money created by the Federal Reserve is landing up in the stock market.
So the stock market is going up because there is too much money chasing stocks. The broader point is that the stock markets have little to do with the overall state of economy and business.
This is something that Aswath Damodaran, valuation guru, and professor at the Columbia University in New York, seemed to agree with, when I asked him in a recent interview about how strong is the link between economic growth and stock markets? “It is getting weaker and weaker every year,” he had replied.
This holds even in the context of the stock market in India. The economy which was growing at more than 8 percent per year is now barely growing at 5 percent per year. Inflation is high at 10 percent. Borrowing rates are higher than that. When it comes to fiscal deficit we are placed 148 out of the 150 emerging markets in the world. This means only two countries have a higher fiscal deficit as a percentage of their GDP, in comparison to India. Our inflation rank is around 118-119 out of the 150 emerging markets.
More and more Indian corporates are investing abroad rather than in India (Source: This discussion featuring Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma and the Chief Economic Advisor to the government Raghuram Rajan on NDTV)But despite all these negatives, the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, is only a few percentage points away from its all-time high level.
Sharma, Managing Director and head of the Emerging Markets Equity team at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, had a very interesting point to make. He used thefollowing slide to show how closely the Indian stock market was related to the other emerging markets of the world.
India’s premier stock market index, is only a few percentage points away from its all-time high level.
As he put it, “It has a correlation of more than 0.9. It is the most highly correlated stock market in the entire world with the emerging market averages.”
So we might like to think that we are different but we are not. “We love to make local noises about how will the market react pre-budget/post-budget and so on, but the big picture is this. What drives a stock market in the short term, medium term and long term is how the other stock markets are doing,” said Sharma. So if the other stock markets are going up, so does the stock market in India and vice versa.
In fact, one can even broaden the argument here. The state of the American stock market also has a huge impact on how the other stock markets around the world perform. So as long as the Federal Reserve keeps printing money, the Dow will keep doing well. And this in turn will have a positive impact on other markets around the world.
To conclude let me quote Lombardi of Profit Confidential again “I believe the longer the Federal Reserve continues with its quantitative easing and easy monetary policy, the bigger the eventual problem is going to be. Consider this: what happens to the Dow Jones Industrial Average when the Fed stops printing paper money, stops purchasing US bonds, and starts to raise interest rates? The opposite of a rising stock market is what happens.”
But the moral is this: when the world booms, India too booms. Keep your fingers crossed if the boom is lowered some time in the future.
The article originally appeared on on March 8, 2013.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek

Why the foreigners are not impressed with Budget 2013

P-CHIDAMBARAMThe foreigners aren’t impressed with the budget presented by Finance Minister P Chidambaram yesterday. These include the rating agencies as well as investors who pour money into the Indian stock market.
As Ruchir Sharma, head of the Emerging Markets Equity team at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and the author of Breakout Nations told NDTV in a discussion yesterday: “On the fiscal side..a lot of the assumptions are being torn apart when people are analysing this budget.”
Government income is essentially categorised into two parts. Revenue receipts and capital receipts. Revenue receipts include regular forms of income which the government earns every year like income tax, corporate tax, excise duty, customs duty, service tax and so on.
Capital receipts include money earned through sale of shares in government-owned companies, telecom spectrum, etc. Capital receipts are essentially earned by selling things that the government owns.  Once something is sold it can’t be sold again and that is an important point to remember. Borrowing by the government, which is not an income, is also comes under capital receipts.
Revenue receipts for the year 2013-2014 are expected to be at Rs 10,56,331 crore. For the year 2012-2013 revenue receipts were budgeted to be at Rs 9,35,685 crore when the last budget was presented. This number has now been revised to Rs 8,71,828 crore. Hence, the government expects the revenue receipts to grow by 21.2 percent in 2013-2014. This projection has been made in an environment where the government is unlikely to meet its original revenue receipts target for the year. Also the revenue receipts this year will grow by 16 percent in comparison to last year.
So a 21 percent growth in revenue receipts is a fairly optimistic assumption to make. So if revenues collected are lower during the course of the year and the expenditure continues at the same rate, the fiscal deficit will be higher than it has been projected to be. Or expenditure will have to be cut, like it has been done this year. And that is not always a good sign.
Another point that this writer made yesterday was on the side of subsidies. For the year 2012-2013 subsidies were expected to be at Rs 1,90,015 crore. This has been revised to Rs 2,57,654 crore, which is almost 36 percent higher. This makes it very difficult to believe next year’s subsidy target of Rs 2,31,084 crore, especially when more subsidies/sops are likely to be announced during the course of the next financial year in view of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
As I said in the piece, the understating of subsidies has not been a one-off thing and has happened every year during the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. So higher subsidies than budgeted might again mean a higher fiscal deficit or a cut in expenditure.
Amay Hattangadi and Swanand Kelkar of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, in a report titled The Art of Balancing, make an interesting point. They feel that the finance minister by projecting a fiscal deficit of 5.2 percent of GDP for this financial year and 4.8% of GDP might be giving an impression of fiscal prudence, but a closer look at the math reveals a different story.
As they write: “As trained accountants, we have learnt that sale of assets from the balance-sheet are one-off or non-recurring items. It is interesting that if we add back the estimates from sale of (telecom) spectrum and divestment of government companies (both non-recurring in our view), the ‘real’ fiscal deficit/GDP ratio for financial year 2014 shows no improvement over financial year 2013.”
The table below sourced from the Morgan Stanley report gives the complete story.

Table from Morgan Stanley
Table from Morgan Stanley

Once we take away capital receipts like divestment of shares and sale of telecom spectrum, which are essentially one-off sources of income from the equation, the real fiscal deficit  to GDP ratio comes in at a more realistic 5.6 percent of the GDP and not 4.8 percent or 5.2 percent that it has been projected to be. The point is that people aren’t buying the numbers put out in Chidambaram’s budget.
There is also very little acknowledgement of the mistakes that have made by the government over the past few years.
Ruchir Sharma, in his discussion on NDTV, put up a very interesting slide. The slide shows that India has consistently held rank 24-26 among 150 emerging market countries when it comes to economic growth over the last three decades. We thought we were growing at a very fast rate over the last few years, but so was everyone else. As Sharma put it: “The last decade we thought we had moved to a higher normal and it was all about us. Every single emerging market in the world boomed and the rising tide lifted all boats, including us.”

India's growth has remained consistent in the last three years
India’s growth has remained consistent in the last three decades

But now that we are not growing as fast as we were in the past, it is because of the slowing down of the global economy. As Chidambaram put it in his budget speech “We are not unaffected by what happens in the rest of the world and our economy too has slowed after 2010-11.”
Sharma pointed out the self-serving nature of this argument thus: “When the downturn happens it is about the global economy. When we do well it’s about us.” This is a disconnect that still persists, as is evident from Chidambaram’s statement.

India in the last four years was fed with artifuical fiscal stiumal, which led to high inflation
India in the last four years was fed with artificial fiscal stimulas, which led to high inflation

Another slide put up by Sharma makes for a very interesting reading. “Between 2008 and 2010 we implemented a massive stimulus, both fiscal and monetary, and that artificially inflated our growth rate to 13th in emerging market (as is evident from the slide). We were thrilled about it. It led to a massive increase in inflation and now this is payback time. Between 2010-2012, we fell to the 40th position,” said Sharma. So as more money was pumped into the economy, it chased the same number of goods and services, which led to higher prices or inflation.
So the massive spending by the government came back to haunt us. Inflation went through the roof. India’s rank among emerging markets when it came to inflation used to be around 60th. In the last few years it has fallen to the 118-119th position.

Chart:Morgan Stanley
As Sharma puts it: “This is the problem that India has today. India does not have an explicit inflation target. Most emerging markets and central banks work with explicit inflation targets. We have gotten away with it. I think the time is coming now for a more rules-based system. If we had an inflation target I doubt if we would have allowed inflation to increase at such a rapid pace”

Nations which have grown in the past at rapid rates have never had consistently high inflation. “And whenever inflation persisted over a period of time it always meant that the economy was headed for a major slowdown,” said Sharma. High inflation continues to be a major reason for worry in India.
Inflation in India has been a manifestation of a rapid increase in government spending. The total expenditure of the government in 2006-2007 was at Rs 5,81,637 crore. For the year 2013-2014, the total expenditure is expected to be at Rs 16,65,297 crore. The expenditure thus has nearly tripled (actually it’s gone up 2.9 times). During the same period the revenue receipts of the government have gone up only 2.5 times. The difference, as we all know, has been made up by borrowing leading to a burgeoning fiscal deficit. The next slide tells you how hopeless the situation really is.

Chart:Morgan Stanley
So India is really at the bottom when it comes to the fiscal deficit.

The point is very basic. We don’t earn all the money that we want to spend. As Chidambaram admitted to in the budget speech: “In 2011-12, the tax GDP ratio was 5.5 percent for direct taxes and 4.4 percent for indirect taxes.  These ratios are one of the lowest for any large developing country and will not garner adequate resources for inclusive and sustainable development.  I may recall that in 2007-08, the tax GDP ratio touched a peak of 11.9 percent.”
And this budget highlighted very little on how the government plans to increase its revenue receipts. In fact, Chidambaram even admitted that only 42,800 individuals admitted to having taxable incomes of greater than Rs 1 crore in India. This is a situation that needs to be set right. More Indians need to be made to pay income tax.
To conclude, let me say that the foreigners are worried and so should we.
The aritcle originally appeared on on March 1, 2013.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek