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Thursday, August 07, 2008

India Outlook August 2008

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Executive Summary

India’s latest run of strong economic growth and continuing macroeconomic stability is a tribute the important progress made in recent years in macroeconomic management techniques as well as to an earlier generation of structural reforms. India’s economy has now expanded at an average rate of about 8½ percent for four years running, on the back of rising productivity and sustained investment. Inflation after ebbing in the second half of 2007 has now returned in full force and become one of the most pressing macro problems facing the Indian economy. In fact the record capital inflows which have followed the bout of global financial turbulance and a slowing U.S. economy, while in the long run beneficial, have only served to complicate the application of sound monetary policy. The current account deficit, which had remained modest, is now – on the back of high oil prices, heavy external energy dependence and a growing fiscal deficit – in danger of becoming a matter of concern.

India Needs:

- to bring inflation back under control and to within the central bank “comfort zone”.
- to reduce the growing fiscal deficit
- to extend and substantially upgrade infrastructure

India's Strong Points:

- solid and sustained economy growth, no likelihood a a major slowdown
- significant foreign exchange reserves
- proven human capital resources
- demographic tailwinds blowing strongly in her favour, and for several decades to come

Economic Background

India’s recent macroeconomic performance has been truly impressive, the result of sound macroeconomic policies, steady reforms which have been ongoing since the start of the since 1990s, and increasingly favourable demographic tailwinds. Growth averaged about 8½ percent in the four years through 2007/08, and while it is set to drop to the 7- 8 percent range this year, India will remain one of the world’s fastest-growing economies in 2008. The poverty rate fell from 36 percent in 1993/94 to under 28 percent in 2004/05.

India’s productivity growth has also been rapid when compared with that of other countries. The IMFs September 2006 World Economic Outlook found that India’s total factor productivity growth has averaged about 3⅓ percent in recent years, which within Asia is only exceed by China. Other recent growth accounting exercises have found TFP growth for India in the range of 3.2–3.5 percent for the recent period.

It’s the demography

At the present time some some 31 % of India’s populations are under 15 years of age. Between now and 2015 that proportion isn’t expected to change too much, but after 2015, with fertility nationwide now falling rapidly, the proportion is set to decline continually, with India moving steadily nearer the proportion which is to be found in more developed economies – Ireland, for example currently has some 21% of its population under 15, while in the United Kingdom the equivalent figure is 17%.

What this means is that India post 2015 will see a steep and sustained decline in its child dependency ratio and a steady increase in the proportion of its population who are of working age. In those Asian economies (the so called “Tigers”) who have previously passed through this demographic transition such steep declines in dependency ratios have been found to boost GDP growth incrementally, and substantially. This boost is known as the “demographic dividend”. The process is not a mechanical one, of course, and to get the increment, jobs have to be created for the new entrants into the labour force, and in India’s case these jobs will be needed at something like a rate of 15 million a year. What is really different about India is that the demographers are forecasting a continuing decline in the dependency ratio for a period of 30 years or so, as India's fertility rate - that is, the average number of children a woman expects to have in her life time – (which was standing at 3.8 in 1990) falls from the present national average of 2.9 to levels which in all probability will be well below replacement level.

There is another reason why this demographic change is important and that is that we human beings exhibit variable spending and saving activity at different moments in our life cycle. Basically we tend to save most either when we have just started working and are waiting to establish a family home, or during the latter years of our working lives. Whatsmore having children makes it harder to save wherever we are in the life cycle, and thus reducing the proportion of children in a society will tend – other things being equal – to increase the level of saving.

And, not unexpectedly, India's savings rate as a percentage of GDP has been rising steadily since 2003. It now stands in the region of 33% of GDP – a figure which is comparable to the Asian super-performers, all of whom save at above 30%, with China saving at an astonishing rate of nearly 40%.

This recent savings growth has been driven in India by improvements in the government's fiscal health and a sharp rise in corporate savings, but even if these positive factors should gradually disappear, the decline in the dependency ratio should enable India to hold its savings and investment rate above the 30% mark for the next 25 years at least.

Recent Economic Indicators

The Indian economy continued to expand strongly in the first quarter of 2008, even though growth has now dropped back somewhat from the 10.1% peak reached in Q3 2006. GDP, however, still grew at a pretty solid y-o-y rate of 8.8% in Q1, and indeed output growth was unchanged from the last quarter of 2007. So while the Indian economy is slowing, it is doing so very gradually indeed.

Private consumption continued to grow rapidly in Q1 2008 (13.5%) but gross fixed capital formation dropped back (from an average of 20% y-o-y in the previous 3 quarters to 15% in Q1). Since construction activity was still running at a strong pace (12.6%, the fastest rate since Q2 2006) it would not be unrealistic to assume that spending on machinery and equipment slowed somewhat. This would also follow from the fact that manufacturing growth (5.8%) showed the slowest expansion in many quarters (well down from the 10% average over the previous 3 quarters). Infrastructure development also lagged behind in terms of electricity, gas and water supply growth, which was only up by 5.6%. Indeed utilities output has only grown by an average of around 6% over the last 8 quarters. On the other hand government spending shot up, growing at an annual rate of 22.4%. Hence here we have two of the key themes which continue to preoccupy observers of India’s economy: the slow growth of manufacturing and infrastructure, and the rapidly increasing fiscal deficit.

Both India’s exports and imports were up quite strongly in Q1 (12.7%), and this revival in exports offers some evidence that Indian exporters have now started to benefit from the weaker rupee, which has declined by some 7 percent so far this year. India's export growth accelerated again in June and overseas shipments, which account for about 15 percent of the Indian economy, were up 23.5 percent year on year (reaching a total of $14.66 billion), following a 13 percent gain in May. Imports, however, have been increasing even more quickly, and were up 26 percent (to $24.45 billion) in June, thus widening the trade deficit (as compared to June 2007) to $9.78 billion. The deficit was however down on May's whopping $10.77 billion. India's oil imports in June rose 53.4 percent to $9.03 billion as refiners paid more for crude oil purchased overseas. India relies on imports of oil for three-quarters of its energy needs. Non-oil imports gained 14 percent to $15.4 billion.India has paid an average $8 billion a month for oil imports in the year through June, compared with $5.4 billion in 2007.

India's inflation accelerated again in late July, and hit it highest level since 1995, providing additional evidence to support last week's central bank decision to raise borrowing costs for the third time in two months. Wholesale prices were up 12.01 percent in the week to July 26, after rising 11.98 percent in the previous week.

The Reserve Bank of India raised its repurchase rate by a half-percentage point to 9 percent on 29 July, giving priority to the inflation fight over India's short term growth rate. Indeed many economists consider that the bank may well increase the benchmark rate again in the next three months. The cash reserve ratio was also raised 8.75 to 9 percent and in the statement which followed the decision the bank said it still had "headroom'' to further tighten monetary policy. The bank also increased this year's inflation forecast to 7 percent from the previous range of 5 percent to 5.5 percent.

However while the inflation process in India still has some momentum, as the global economy slows – thus reducing pressure on commodity prices - and monetary tightening reins in domestic demand, India’s inflation peak can not now be far away. Despite constant ups and downs oil prices have been generally falling since hitting the record high of US$147.27 a barrel on July 11, and by August 1st they had dropped around 15 per cent in a mere three weeks. If this trend continues then India should eventually obtain some notable relief and this is why it is so important to maintain strict monetary policy and avoid second round inflation effects at this juncture.

India's industrial production provides the most evident sign of the economic slowdown, with output growing at the slowest pace in more than six years in May as continuing price rises and tightening credit lead consumers to cut back on purchases of items like cars, fridges and other manufactured goods. Industrial output was up 3.8 percent from a year earlier after gaining 6.2 percent in April. Manufacturing, which accounts for about 80 percent of India's industrial production, was up 3.9 percent. Electricity rose 2 percent, and mining grew 5.5 percent. Consumer-goods production increased 7.2 percent.

The Ratings Agencies

One notable recent development has been the decision by ratings agency Fitch to lower India's local currency credit rating. The decision by Fitch to revise India's local currency outlook to negative from stable was based on a perception by the ratings agency of a worsening fiscal position and rising inflation. The assignment of a negative outlook suggests an increase in the sovereign default rate may follow if the problem is not corrected, and this would affect the flow of funds - and hence investment - into India. The new revised local currency rating will be 'BBB-' with negative outlook as against the earlier 'BBB-' with stable outlook.

James McCormack - Head of Asia Sovereign Ratings for Fitch - is quoted as saying the "the revision to the local currency outlook is based on a considerable deterioration in the central government's fiscal position in 2008-09, combined with a notable increase in government debt issuance to finance subsidies not captured in the budget." The rating agency has revised its economic growth forecast for 2008-09 from just under 9% to 7.7%, and this seems to be not unreasonable.

Fitch did, however, continue to affirm India's long term foreign currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) at 'BBB-' with stable outlook, its short-term foreign currency IDR at F3 and the country ceiling at 'BBB-'. The assignment of a local currency negative outlook thus means that agency has effectively put India on watch with the implication that is the underlying causes (inflation and the underlying dynamics of the fiscal deficit) are not addressed over the next 12 to 18 months, the rating could be subject to downgrade. Obviously this is a warning shot as much as anything else, and an attempt to put pressure on the Indian government.

As regards its external balance India is rather different from many other large emerging economies since while the central bank (which has a high level of independence from government) does intervene in the spot market to try to keep a lid on the rupee’s rise and to built up a “war chest” of international reserves the bank has allowed the currency to rise substantially against the US dollar (while the rupee has fallen in 2008, it appreciated by some 12% against the dollar in 2007).

Foreign Exchange Reserves

India's foreign exchange reserves fell another $504 million - to reach $306.6 billion - in the week ended July 25. Despite the fact that India’s foreign exchange reserves, have increased by $81.3 billion in the last twelve months they have in fact now been falling since May. It could be however that the increase in interest rates and the falling price of oil could now see a reversal in this trend.

The big unknown here is the future movement in the oil price. Despite the recent price easing, India still faces an import bill for crude that may reach $120 billion this fiscal year, compared with $69 billion the year before. This extra burden is about 4% of GDP.

Add the impact of the fiscal deficit to the oil bill, and it is not hard to see that the external deficit could reach 4% of GDP this fiscal year. The IMF In April were forecasting a 3.1% for 2008. Reducing this gap is now becoming a priority, especially given the comparative strictness of the ratings agencies vis-a-vis India. Any future downgrades in credit will only make funding the gap more expensive, and as we have seen attracting the foreign capital necessary to bridge the gap has been becoming harder in recent weeks.

Money Supply and Credit

Short term cash rates have been pushing the 8.5 to 9% range in India of late as liquidity has been tighter due to the significant increase in the cash reserve ratio required by the Reserve Bank of India. Banks credit remains strong and rose by 25.8% in the 12 months through July 18. Total bank deposits rose by 21%, over the same period. At the same time, money supply in India grew 20% in the two weeks ended July 18 from a year earlier, compared with 20.5% in the prior two weeks.

While much of the recent increase in lending is likely to be associated with increased credit needs on the part of the oil companies, it also seems that bank credit to other sectors has been picking up. The Reserve Bank of India is unsurpringly rather concerned about the level of credit growth, especially considering that deposit growth slowed to 21% over the same period.

The Rupee

The rupee appreciated significantly during 2007, raising concerns about the competitiveness of Indian industry. In nominal bilateral terms vis-a-vis the dollar, the appreciation has been particularly notable, reaching successive nine-year highs as it rose about 12 percent over the year. Although the increase has been lower in nominal and real effective terms—only about 7–7½ percent—the appreciation of the effective rupee has taken it out of the historical range in which it fluctuated during most of the last decade

Growth Prospects

On the growth front a large gap has now opened up between the increasingly gloomy views about India’s prospects as seen from abroad, and the relative optimism displayed by a number of internal forecasters. The Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), in Mumbai, still thinks India will grow by 9.5% this fiscal year, while JPMorgan only anticipates growth somewhere in the region of 7%.

While the CMIE estimate is undoubtedly unduly high for this (calendar) year, with growth more than likely coming in in the 7.5% to 8% range, their optimism is not totally unjustified looking forward to 2009 and 2010. Trend growth in India is surely higher than many conventional analyses tend to hold, and if inflation can be gotten under control India then India may well start to hit double digit growth come 2010, and once it breaks the 10% ceiling, it may well stay above it for some considerable time. This is simply because India has a very large untapped capacity for growth, and it is not unrealistic to anticipate that this capacity can be unleased, especially if institutional reform continues, and the fiscal deficit concerns are addressed.

But things are likely to go down before they bounce back up again, since he tightening in monetary policy will surely achieve the desired effect of slowing aggregate demand and GDP growth further. Also negative global factors are likely to continue to weigh adversely on India’s growth outlook in the short term. Consumption growth has already slowed significantly. Investments growth has also begun to moderate and it is quite probable that the slowdown in the investment cycle will accentuate over the next six months.

Everything really now depends on the outlook for inflation and capital inflows. I believe that Inflation should peak in late summer at levels which are not too far above those we are currently seeing. The rate should then start moderating and we could well be back down at 7% - 8% by the end of the financial year. In part this depends on oil prices, and year on year base effects, and oil and food prices, of course, also partly depend on growth in India and the other key emerging economies. Thus we have a kind of "inbuilt stabiliser", since as the major emerging economies slow, commodity prices ease back, and as this happens the central banks can begin once more to loosen monetary policy, providing a kind of win-win feedback effect, until, of course, commodity prices bounce back again, and they need to start tightening once more.

The key point to grasp in all this is that it is consumers in the heavy energy consumption OECD economies who are going to do the heavy lifting of bearing the pain here, as resources are effectively transferred from their wallets to those of the oil producers, and it is this process, rather than what happens in the emerging economies which is likely to keep a cap on global growth in the coming years.

Outlook on Key indicators

  • Following the most recent rate hike market expectations have now solidified towards further interest rate increases in the pipeline. The driving orce here will, as ever, be inflation running above the central bank's comfort zone. Here at Emerginvest we see the Reserve Bank of India being rather more prudent at coming meetings, and we feel the current rate hike cycle may possibly peak at 9.5%. Key factors here will be the behaviour of oil prices, and wages and fiscal policy in India itself with election year approaching.

  • The Rupee is likely to continue to be supported by central bank tightening and declining demand for dollars from oil producers as oil prices ease. Also should the Rupee continue to head upwards and inflation start to fall, a win-win process will again be set in motion as investors see the prospect of currency related increasing returns once more opening up. In the great global search for yield there is no better winning strategy than to back a winner. At some point however macroeconomic fundamentals will undoubtedly take over, and as the economy slows and inflation moves down towards the comfort zone (around 5%) the central bank will also move into easing mode pushing the Rupee down in the process. A violent correction however is not expected.

  • Obviously, with the domestic credit induced consumer boom now fading, exports are going to become more important than ever for India's headline GDP growth. India's Trade Minister Kamal Nath recently set the target of more than tripling India's share of world trade to 5 percent by the year 2020 from the current 1.5 percent. This is a worthy target, and perfectly realiseable, but it will require India to conduct a substantial infrastructural overhaul and to intruce widespread regulatory reform. In the shorter term India is targeting exports of $200 billion in the current fiscal year, up 28 percent from the $155.5 billion achieved in the previous year. This is attainable – exports were up 23.5% y-o-y in June - but with a deteriorating external environment it will be quite hard work.
  • GDP growth is expected to moderate in 2008 compared to the levels seen in the last three years but at this point growth projections remain solid (probably 7.5 to 8% in calendar 2008). We certainly see India’s mid term sustainable growth rate as being above the consensus 7%-8% rate once inflation is firmly under control, and expect double digit annual growth rates to be hit in either late 2009 or 2010 depending on the extent to which the global slowdown in 2009 negatively affects India’s GDP growth.

  • We expect India's credit ratings to remain broadly stable even as the nation weathers higher oil prices and slowing economic growth – a view which was endorsed in a statement at the start of August by Moody's Investors Service. Moody's has a Ba2 rating on India's long-term, local currency debt, leaving it two levels below investment grade, although it rates India's foreign-currency debt Baa3, the lowest investment level. The downside risk here obviously comes from fiscal laxity, but the authorities in New Delhi are undoubtedly very aware of this.

India's Inflation Breaks The 12% Barrier At The End of July

India's inflation accelerated to the fastest pace in more than 13 years at the end of last month. Wholesale prices rose 12.01 percent in the week to July 26, after gaining 11.98 percent the previous week, accroding to the commerce ministry in New Delhi this morning.

The fastest price gains since 1995 have prompted the Reserve Bank of India to raise interest rates three times in two months, squeezing in the process bank liquidity and consumer spending. Pressure will once more be on the RBI to raise rates again soon, but looking at the current evolution in oil prices they may well be tempted to hold fire for a bit. Light, sweet crude for September delivery was dancing around $118.79 a barrel in afternoon trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange today, with prices were alternating between being in positive and negative territory. Crude has now fallen more than $6 over the previous three days, bringing prices $30 lower than its July high above $147 a barrel. Fuel price inflation in India was 17.12 percent in the week ending 26 July, compared with 16.9 percent in the previous week, and this globally driven oil inflation seems to be about to peak in terms of its impact on India.

Foreign Exchange Reserves

Foreign exchange reserves fell to $305.474 billion as on August 1, from $306.603 bilion a week earlier, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said in its weekly statistical supplement on Friday. Reserves rose to a record $316.171 billion in late May and the decline since then is largely due to dollars given by the RBI to refiners in exchange for their oil bonds and intervention in the currency market to support a falling rupee. RBI ended the special scheme for refiners on July 29.

The Rupee

The rupee advanced again this week on speculation rising stocks will encourage overseas fund managers to buy more of the nation's assets, and touched its highest level in almost three months this on optimism a slump in crude oil prices will reduce import costs. The rupee has now been the second-best performer in the past month among the 10 most-traded currencies in Asia outside Japan as the Bombay Stock Exchange's Sensitive Index, or Sensex, surged more than 13 percent.

The rupee gained 0.7 percent on the week and closed at 42.0625 per dollar on Friday in Mumbai, the highest since May 12. The Sensex rose for a fifth week, the longest winning streak in 10 months.

Funds based abroad bought $403.7 million more Indian equities than they sold on Aug. 6, the most in two weeks, according to the Securities and Exchange Board of India. They have sold a net $6.5 billion this year, compared with a record net purchase of $17.2 billion in 2007.

Foreigners have bought $230 million worth of shares so far in August after selling more than $307 million in July.