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

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?