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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Indian Inflation Doesn't Budge While Forex Reserves Rise and the Rupee Falls

India's inflation held steady in the week to September 13, rising 12.14 percent from a year earlier, thus maintaining the same pace as in the previous week. The rate has now been trending slightly down from the recent peak of 12.63 percent hit on the 9 August. If this trend continues it should give the central bank the necessary room to hold borrowing costs unchanged and thus avoid placing funding pressures on a banking system which is struggling in the wake of the most recent bout of financial turmoil in the United States.

India's financial system is evidently showing signs of strain as the impact of both local policy tightening and the global credit crunch steadily take hold. The rate at which Indian banks lend to each other climbed to an 18-month high of 15.125 percent on Sept. 19, following the failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings and the U.S. government takeover of American International Group. As a result the Indian finance ministry responded by allowing companies building roads, ports, utilities and other infrastructure projects to borrow more overseas - thus giving them access to cheaper funds - while the central bank announced measures to boost cash in India's financial system.

Indian banks have borrowed an average 642.8 billion rupees from the central bank in the last two weeks, more than five times the average 113 billion rupees in the previous fortnight, further indicating a shortage of funds in the banking system.

Foreign Exchange Reserves Rise Slightly

India’s foreign-exchange reserves rose by the most in five months in the week ended September 19, according to the latest data from the Reserve Bank of India. The rise has surprised many observers, but it should be borne in mind that it coincided with the rise in the dollar against a number of other currencies (and in particular the euro, which the RBI also holds in reserves) on the back of the euphoria about the possible bailout of the US financial system.

Total foreign-exchange reserves rose by $2.51 billion to $292 billion in the week ended Sept 19, while foreign-currency assets - which form the lions share of the reserves -climbed $2.5 billion to $282.8 billion during the week. As we can see from the chart (below) the value of foreign exchange reserves has stabilised since mid-August, so the rot, it would seem, has definitely stopped. I think it is significant that we saw a positive initial response across the key emerging markets to the proposed US bailout, and while we are now seeing considerable volatility as people become nervous about whether it will, finally, arrive.I think when the package is introduced the key emerging market economies will be the principal beneficiaries, as the so called "risk appetite" will bounce back, especially given that the aftermath of the package will be a lower growth period in the OECD economies as the cost of the bailout has to be assimilated.

Even given the recent decline, it is important to bear in mind that India's foreign-exchange reserves, including overseas currencies, gold and special drawing rights with the International Monetary Fund, have increased $56.1 billion in the past year.

Money Supply Continues To Grow

Meanwhile, money supply in India grew year on year by 21 % in the two weeks ended Sept. 12, same rate as in the previous fortnight, according to data from the RBI. M3 - which largely consists of currency in public circulation, bank deposits and money invested in other saving plans, stood at Rs 42,26,143 crore as on September 12.

M3 has been rising at an average rate of 21% since the current fiscal year began on April 1, and has been consistently above the central bank’s target of 16.5% to 17% for the fiscal year ending March. At the same time, total bank loans rose by Rs 32,914 crore in the two weeks ended Sept 12, the biggest fortnightly increase since March. Outstanding bank credit was up by 26.1% year on year and reached Rs 24, 91,248 crore. Food credit was up by Rs 847 crore to Rs 45,190 crore, while non-food credit increased by Rs 32,067 crore to Rs24,46,058 crore. Total bank deposits rose by 22.5%, or Rs 6, 25,282 crore, in the same period to Rs reach 34, 05,377 crore.

The Rupee Weakens Again

The rupee has declined almost 17 percent so far this year and is the second-worst performer among the ten most-active Asian currencies excluding the yen. This week it declined for the seventh consecutive week, the longest run in more than 2 1/2 years. The rupee was down 5.6 percent in September, and is thus headed for its worst month since the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Foreign investors were net sellers of Indian stocks for a fifth straight month in September, and have offloaded $9 billion so far this year, according to data from the Securities & Exchange Board of India. They bought a record $17.2 billion in stocks last year. Indian stocks fell, with the benchmark posting its biggest weekly drop in six months, after talks on a U.S. credit market rescue plan stalled and Washington Mutual Inc. became the biggest bank failure in American history.

The Bombay Stock Exchange's Sensitive Index, or Sensex, fell 445, or 3.3 percent, to 13,102.18. The index had its biggest weekly drop since the week ended March 7. The S&P CNX Nifty Index on the National Stock Exchange slid 125.30, or 3.1 percent, to 3,985.25. The BSE 200 Index declined 3.2 percent to 1,590.58. Nifty futures for October delivery fell 3.9 percent to 3,995.

Standard & Poor's 500 Index futures slid 1.7 percent when negotiations on a $700 billion bailout plan for U.S. credit markets were thrown into doubt by a group of House Republicans who said the plan drawn up by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wouldn't work.

The decline in Indian stocks is more a reflection of global sentiment towards emerging market stocks and bonds than it is an indicator of any specific local issue. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index of stocks has been falling since last May - as can be seen in the chart below - and dropped 1.74% percent on Friday to 823.694, its lowest level since Sept. 15. The index is now down 13.6% so far this month, and 33.87% so far this year. But if you look carefully you can see that it peaked up again after 20th September, as speculation increased that there would be a major bailout of the US banking and insurance sector. This bounce back unwound towards the end of last week, as uncertainty grew about the arrival of the package.

A similar picture can be seen of the JPMorgan EMBI+ emerging bonds index (see below), which has been down significantly since the end of August. Since the US package seems now about to be approved for the US congress, as a result we should see sentiment improve significantly, and India may well be one of the principal beneficiaries of this change in sentiment. The coming weeks should clear all this up quite quickly.