Friday, July 13, 2007

The Economist on India 1

The Economist on India 1

Waiting for the monsoon

Jun 7th 2007
From The Economist print edition
The economy continues to overheat despite a rising currency and recent signs of falling inflation

JUDGING by the latest burst of economic euphoria in India you would think that the monsoon had arrived early this year, bringing relief from the country's scorching heat. Indian businessmen and politicians are cheering the latest economic numbers, which appear to show that inflation is falling even as growth remains strong. This, they claim, shows that the risk of the economy overheating has faded. Their glee is premature: India's economy, like Delhi this week, remains far too hot.

India's GDP grew by 9.4% in the fiscal year ending in March, its fastest rate for 18 years and the second strongest on record. JPMorgan estimates that growth in the three months to March accelerated to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 11.4%. Yet, despite rapid growth, wholesale-price inflation (the measure of prices most closely watched by policymakers) fell to 5.1% in mid-May, down from 6.7% in January and close to the Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) inflation target of 5% for 2007-08.

Several economic commentators have concluded that the panic earlier this year over rising inflation was exaggerated and it is now safe for the RBI to ease policy—or at least that there is no need for further tightening. Since January 2006 the RBI has raised its overnight lending rate by one and a half percentage points, to 7.75%. And monetary conditions have been further squeezed by the Indian rupee, which has surged by 10% against the dollar since March (see chart) to a nine-year high.

The jump in the rupee reflects an abrupt change in policy by the RBI. Until March the central bank was intervening heavily to hold the currency down. But the large amounts of dollars it was forced to buy were fuelling excessive growth in the money supply and hence inflation. To offset this extra liquidity, the bank “sterilised” the increase in foreign reserves by selling securities to banks. The snag is that sterilisation is expensive because the RBI has to pay much more on the bonds it issues to mop up liquidity than it earns on dollar reserves. A pegged exchange rate also cramped the RBI's room to raise interest rates, because that would attract yet more capital.

The RBI's job had been made even harder by the government, which last year encouraged capital inflows by raising the ceiling on foreign borrowing by firms, allowing Indian companies to take advantage of lower interest rates abroad than at home. All Asian economies have faced upward pressure on their currencies but India is the only one where the government has foolishly invited more capital inflows. In April the government sought to take some of the steam out of the rupee by allowing Indian firms to make bigger overseas acquisitions. It raised the ceiling for overseas investment to three times an Indian acquirer's net worth, from two times.

By abandoning its attempt to hold the rupee down against the dollar, the RBI is now able to regain control over monetary policy and so focus on containing inflation. But exporters are howling about their loss of competitiveness and a fierce debate is raging among economists over what should be done about the currency.

Some argue that India should copy China and continue to intervene heavily to keep its exchange rate cheap. However, Arvind Subramanian, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, points out that China's ability to sustain its exchange rate stems in part from “financial repression and autocracy”. When China sterilises the monetary impact of rising reserves, its central bank pays interest of only about 2% on the bills that domestic state-owned banks are forced to buy, considerably less than the interest it earns on American Treasury bonds. This makes sterilisation profitable in China (as it is not in India), so it can be sustained for longer.

Reversing reforms and shifting back to such financial repression is not a sensible economic strategy for India, argues Mr Subramanian. And since India already has one of the biggest budget deficits among emerging economies (7% of GDP for central and state government), it simply cannot afford to intervene and sterilise on China's scale.

Another big difference is that inflation in India is much higher than it is in China, where consumer-price inflation is running at 3%. Thus even when the rupee's nominal rate against the weakening dollar was held down, India's real exchange rate rose because of high inflation. Goldman Sachs reckons that the rupee is one of the few Asian currencies that is overvalued against the dollar.

In the past couple of weeks the RBI seems to have resumed intervention, with official figures showing another big jump in foreign-currency reserves in late May. This may be in response to government pressure. Others suggest that it is because falling inflation has allowed the bank to shift its attention back to the exchange rate. If so, this may be premature.

Chetan Ahya of Morgan Stanley argues that the fall in wholesale-price inflation has been largely caused by three factors: the rise in the rupee, which has trimmed the prices of imported goods; administrative measures, such as a cut in fuel taxes and import duties and a ban on wheat exports; and the “base effect” of some commodity prices being higher a year ago. However, the root cause of inflation is that demand continues to outpace supply.

This is not to deny that India's economic speed limit has increased, to perhaps 7-8%, thanks to stronger investment and economic reforms. But growth has exceeded that limit. The economy still shows alarming symptoms of overheating, such as soaring house prices, credit growth of 28% over the past 12 months and 15%-plus average rises in wages for skilled workers. Industrial capacity utilisation has risen to a record high, and rampant domestic demand sucked in 41% more imports than a year ago in April, pushing the trade deficit to a record level.

Moreover, wholesale prices are not the best measure of inflation. About 40% of the wholesale-price index reflects global commodity prices rather than domestic conditions. India does not publish a national measure of consumer-price inflation, but the average of the rates for industrial, non-manual and agricultural workers is now nudging a worrying 8%.

India needs a period of slower growth to reduce these excesses and this requires higher interest rates. Constrained by politicians, the RBI's tightening has been timid. In the past year interest rates have risen by less than the rate of inflation has, so rates have fallen in real terms. Relative to consumer-price inflation, the overnight lending rate of 7.75% is close to zero in real terms. That is much lower even than China's real benchmark lending rate of 3.6% (only China's deposit rates are lower). Indeed, India probably has the lowest real interest rates of any major economy, despite having one of the world's fastest growth rates. Without more tightening, expect the sweltering heat to continue.

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