The needless battle

Indian Express, 19th August 2013

Rupee defence strategy has deepened the gathering gloom on the India growth story.

The defence of the rupee is going horribly wrong. It has damaged two sources of hope for a growth pick-up in India - monetary policy easing and India's commitment to economic reform. When Chairman Ben Bernanke of the Fed talked about tapering quantitative easing in the US, it was expected that there would be pressure on emerging market currencies. Countries with weaker economies, and with larger current account deficits were likely to see more currency volatility. Instead of talking about this source of pressure, which all emerging markets faced when the dollar started appreciating, the government decided to step in to defend the rupee.

Evidence from across the world shows that a currency defence often fails. Every government trying to stabilise a currency is, therefore, fully aware of the chances of failure. A careful cost-benefit analysis of its strategy is thus an important pre-condition to initiating a defence. Since the global currency turmoil started, the government has been rolling out measures such as currency market controls, import duties on gold and silver, bans on purchase of gold coins and tightening of capital controls to stabilise the rupee. These dirigiste solutions seem oblivious of their likely impact on market expectations. They are based on central planning notions of bans and restrictions being the solutions to the economy's problems.

First came restrictions on currency derivatives markets by Sebi and the RBI. These markets inform people of expectations about the currency. This information may be unpleasant. The government may disagree with it. But instead of listening to what the market was saying, the authorities chose to try to silence it. Restrictions reduced the extent to which people could hedge their currency risk. This was a bad move, especially since the rupee was expected to become more volatile. It made investors less willing to buy rupee assets. Trading volumes on domestic currency derivatives markets fell sharply and the cost of hedging increased. Instead of making rupee assets more attractive, these measures have made them less attractive. Further, the restrictions have undermined the market's confidence about the government's commitment to financial market liberalisation.

Next came the liquidity squeeze and an increase in short-term interest rates. The complicated strategy hoped to keep long-term interest rates low. This, too, failed. When the rate hike saw a transmission of higher rates to treasury bill rates, long-term bond yields and deposit rates, it became increasingly clear that sooner or later bank lending rates would go up. To prevent that, the RBI kept the repo and CRR rate unchanged. This left the market in complete confusion. Were interest rates going to rise or fall? Statements by the authorities that the tightening was temporary till the rupee stabilises provided little comfort. Could the currency stabilise before US monetary policy went back to normal? How long was "temporary"? In an environment in which a monetary easing was expected to help push up growth, this sudden tightening was a shock. Interest rates are still high. The measures have undermined confidence about monetary policy easing.

After the liquidity squeeze failed to restore rupee stability, came tariff hikes and restrictions on gold and silver imports and tightening of capital controls under FEMA. Restrictions have been imposed on capital outflows by firms and households. Already, firms were suffering from the difficulties of the policy environment. If some of them were going to stay healthy by investing abroad, that was made more cumbersome. Hardly any money was going out by individuals investing abroad. But putting a restriction on these trickles sent out a bad signal to an already nervous market. These measures did not inspire confidence that the government's focus was investment and growth. Worse, they suggested that India's economic reforms are not deep-seated and can be reversed for short-term ends.

With the opening up of trade and the capital account, the currency market has grown very large. Old solutions, like selling a few billion dollars from our reserves to prevent appreciation, no longer work. Out of the three corners of the impossible trinity, a country can choose only two. For the last two decades, India had chosen to move towards an open economy and a flexible exchange rate. In the face of the QE tapering, it means choosing between rupee stability and lowering interest rates. But the government did not like having to make the choice. It wanted both. The only way to control the currency in such a situation is to close the economy. When the size of the market has shrunk adequately, the RBI can intervene and prevent depreciation without much loss of reserves.

If the rupee remains volatile, the government has to choose to either roll out the next measure it has on its list, or to find an exit route. FEMA allows the RBI and government to shut off all cross-border transactions for sale and purchase of assets. The market believes that as long at the rupee defence strategy remains in place, the authorities might impose restrictions on various other capital flows. This expectation has caused further gloom.

We should not lose sight of the big picture of Indian economic policy. The story of the last 20 years is one of slow but steady economic reform resulting in 7 per cent trend GDP growth. The day we walk away from the promise of slow but steady reform, the expectation of future productivity growth is shattered. This adversely affects the credit rating of India, stock prices, investment in India by locals and by foreigners, and capital flight from India. The needless battle the government has picked on the rupee, and the measures it has taken, have reinforced the already growing despondence about economic reforms. It has raised new questions on the India growth story. The government must immediately undo all the steps that have reversed economic reforms of trade or finance or capital account liberalisation. Otherwise, we will suffer deeper damage to the prospect of high GDP growth.

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