Let the rupee slide

Indian Express, 3rd February 2016

The economy is best served by lowering interest rates and blocking protectionism.

In its monetary policy announcement on Tuesday, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) decided to keep the policy interest rate unchanged. One of the implications of this decision is for the rupee. High interest rates have helped in keeping the rupee strong in recent years. It appears policymakers wish this to continue.

But the recent slowdown in China and the depreciation of the yuan means India's external environment has changed significantly. While two years ago it might have seemed like a good idea to prevent the rupee from weakening, a rethink is now warranted.

In recent months, Indian industry has been facing sharp competition from falling international prices. As the budget-making process starts, demands for tariff hikes will get stronger. Accepting protectionist demands could impact downstream industries and have implications for India's international treaty obligations. Favouring certain sectors, especially those with a few large companies, can make the protection politically difficult.

One example of this is the steel industry where the world's largest producer of steel, China' has seen a slump in demand and has an industry suffering from overcapacity. The Indian steel industry is faced with an onslaught of cheap imports. It has, in response, been pressing for hikes in import duty on steel, imposition of a minimum import price and anti-dumping duties.

It can be argued that the government should do nothing, and allow the Indian consumer to benefit from lower Chinese steel prices. However, it is difficult for the government to ignore the state of the steel industry and job losses. The consequent higher probability of defaults on bank loans by steel companies may also push banks into further trouble.

Already, India is ranked No 1 in imposing the most protectionist measures since 2008. In 2015, India imposed the second highest number of protectionist measures, after Russia. For the fastest growing economy in the world, the policy of greater protectionism is becoming untenable.

We expect that in 2016 the pressure for protectionist measures may increase. Global trade has slowed down to nearly zero per cent growth. As the Chinese economy and Chinese exports slow down, Chinese authorities may to try to help push exports.

For one, the Chinese renminbi was devalued. For years, the Chinese currency had seen pressure to appreciate. The slowdown, the pressure on exports and China's decision to depreciate seem to have set off an outflow of dollars from China. Today, the pressure is for greater depreciation. The pace of depreciation has been slowed by foreign exchange intervention. China has been selling dollars. We have seen a decline in its foreign exchange reserves by $513 billion in 2015. In the month of December 2015 alone, China's reserves fell by $108bn. With higher pressure to increase exports, China may allow the yuan to depreciate more.

The most likely direction of the yuan is downwards. In response, other emerging economies are also weakening their currencies. It is not difficult for an emerging market (EM) to do a currency depreciation in today's environment. It does not require cutting interest rates, out of line with macroeconomic conditions. Global growth has slowed down and commodity deflation is putting downward pressure on prices. Following the increase in US interest rates by the Federal Reserve, emerging economies have been witnessing outflows of capital. This is putting pressure on EM currencies to weaken. Indeed, today it is harder for an EM central bank to prevent a depreciation than to allow it.

If other currencies depreciate, it will further make India's imports cheaper and increase the demand for trade protection. However, tariffs are not the only way to protect domestic industry. As is being seen globally, an alternative approach to raising tariffs to tackle the loss of competitiveness of domestic industry is currency depreciation. In the above example, the impact of a 10 per cent depreciation is equivalent to a 10 per cent tariff on all steel imports. Depreciation increases the price of imported goods.

Last week, when Japan adopted a negative interest rate strategy, currency considerations are understood to have played a significant role. While deflation has been around in Japan for a while, the challenge from the yuan and the decline in commodity prices is new. The cut in Japanese policy rates will, it is hoped, depreciate the Japanese yen and increase import prices.

Today, when other countries are protecting themselves by allowing currency depreciation, should India lean against the wind? Should we combine a strong rupee policy with protectionism?

Allowing the rupee to depreciate has further benefits: It makes all imports more expensive. The government does not have the politically difficult job of increasing tariffs case by case. A weaker rupee would also help push Indian exports.

From 2009 to 2013, in the period of high volatility in the global economy, India had a largely flexible exchange rate policy. Since May 2013, India's exchange rate policy has been to prevent significant appreciation or depreciation. Since the taper talk and expectation of rupee depreciation in May 2013, an increase in interest rates and liquidity tightening have prevented any significant weakening of the rupee. Debt flows have been large as the differential between domestic and international interest rates remains high.

Everyone does not want a weak rupee. Foreign investors applaud the strong rupee policy as it protects their returns. Rich Indians like cheap foreign holidays and imported goods. For some people, a strong rupee is a matter of pride. However, the policy of keeping the rupee strong and combining it with protectionist trade measures is unsustainable. Exchange rate policy and strategy for 2016 cannot be the same as it was before the Chinese story started unfolding. The RBI and the commerce ministry need to be on the same page. The government must take a holistic view of the policy strategy on protectionism, the exchange rate and interest rates. The Indian economy would be better served by lower interest rates, blocking protectionism and letting the market determine the price of the rupee.

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