Can we stop the descent of the rupee?

No convincing plan as yet.

The rupee is in trouble. Though its strength has mildly improved today (67.37 against the US dollar today from 68.4 on Wednesday evening) it is now one of the worst performing currencies among developing countries. Not long before, as Deutsche Bank recently predicted, the rupee touches 70 against the dollar. Does not seem long at all.

The Indian stock market has tanked. The financial markets seem to have gone into panic mode. Foreign investors have already sold almost $1 billion of Indian shares in the eight sessions through Tuesday and now Syria, with its increasing crude oil prices and the growing fear of a possible US-led military strike against it, has spooked investors further into believing that India’s already large current account deficit (CAD) may be escalating.

As global prices of India’s two biggest exports – gold alongside oil - surge this week, the strong demand for the dollar from banks and importers, mainly oil refiners, is putting additional strains on the rupee.

The US Fed policy, Ben Bernanke’s plans to start quantitative easing by end-2013 and the West in general coming out of recession have definitely hit all emerging markets hard. Ahead of the Fed’s anticipated tightening, currencies in not only India, but also Indonesia and Brazil, among others, have dropped.

It is expected that when the tapering begins, developed market stocks, bonds and currencies will be most preferred. According to Kevin Gardiner, CIO Europe, Barclays, a world in which monetary policy is normalising, decade-long flow of funds out of developed and into emerging markets slows and even reverses for a while.

But the rupees plight today cannot be blamed just on external factors. There are more home-grown reasons as to why, among risky emerging markets, India is being viewed as the riskiest. 

In India, the high CAD is a massive problem. Foreign provisional investments are used to fill the massive CAD, but that’s not a real solution. There is also a huge imbalance between the imports and exports – the former having risen substantially, widening the CAD further. The rising import bill (arising out of gold, which contributes to over 10 per cent of the total bill) has not helped either.

Also, India’s economic boom has been of a peculiar, even lopsided kind. When the money was flowing in, the country’s progress actually deepened the gap between the rich and the poor.

During its economic highs, the growth in the Indian market was largely sector and strata specific. It was the construction companies and the real estate sector, for instance, which truly profited. The IT sector grew exponentially too. But the general boom did not essentially create a larger, multi-tiered job market, to benefit the grass root level. The rise hasn’t been bottom-upwards.

Being one of the poorest countries in the world, the problem is with the basics. Power supply issues, poor infrastructure, lack of education, land problems and just generally oppressive regulations are all keeping foreign investment out of the country. It is all contributing to the rupee’s decline. All this, alongside the huge social discrimination and disparities that are battled by citizens on a daily basis, bringing about further lag in general progress. There is also widespread corruption which is a key problem, unlike the developed world that hardly has lenience towards it.

The Reserve Bank of India is trying to fill the gaps - true. To check the rupee's free fall, the RBI announced a special window "with immediate effect", late on Wednesday, to sell dollars through a designated bank to the three state-owned oil marketing companies – Indian Oil, Hindustan Petroleum, and Bharat Petroleum "until further notice". They need about USD 8.5bn monthly to meet daily foreign exchange requirement. The RBI previously opened such a window during the global financial crisis in 2008.

The Indian government has also proposed setting up a task force to look into currency swap agreements. Several analysts believe this move could reduce market demand for dollars. Infrastructure projects worth $28.4bn have also been approved to try perking up the economy and currency.

The RBI has imposed restrictions on the amount of money that companies and individuals can send out of the country too, as well as increased the duty on gold imports thrice this year.

But the central bank has also been sending out mixed signals. After the rupee hit a low in July, the RBI had raised interest rates to tighten liquidity in the domestic market. That, however, didn’t help. This week, the RBI decided to get more cash into the economy by bringing interest rates down. Optimism around that didn’t last long in the markets either.

Earlier in the week, BNP Paribas slashed its economic growth forecast for India, for the fiscal year to March 2014, to 3.7 per cent from its previous 5.2 per cent. Reuters quoted BNP Paribas saying India's parliament "remains toxically dysfunctional". BNP also said with general election in 2014 looming near, "the government's willingness to instigate a politically unpopular fiscal tightening is close to nil."

It is true that the upcoming general elections are definitely another factor turning the rupee-recovery pools muggy. But one would like to believe that effective medium to short-term plans will be adopted fast, instead of constant ad hoc measures, for any actual progress to come about. Ideally, in the long term the problems will be tackled at the economic and societal foundations – no permanent recovery can be expected otherwise. For now, though, the RBI and the government are, clearly, yet to unveil steps that can convince everyone that the rupee can even be stabilised.

The rupee is in trouble. Photograph: Getty Images

Meghna Mukerjee is a reporter at Retail Banker International

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR