Indian Rupee ( INR ) – Three questions ?

This Article was Published in Market Express and Indians in Kuwait

The Indian Rupee (INR) is surprisingly strong proving many analysts wrong. In a world where emerging market currencies experience decline, the INR has been appreciating steadily. From a low of Rs.68.77/USD in Feb 2016, the INR value is now Rs.64.54/USD. In 2017 alone so far, the INR has appreciated by 5%. Three questions emerge in this context:

1. Why is INR so strong?

2. What is the outlook (medium term and long term)? &

3. What should NRI’s do?

Why is INR so strong?

In my view, there are 4 reasons why INR is so strong.

Firstly the Modi factor. A lot of things seem to be just going right for him so far. His government is mid-way into its first five year term and he seems to be having a positive rating until now. The biggest and boldest gamble in the form of demonetization actually won him many praise from the same people that stood in queue to withdraw money from ATM. His recent budget has been well received. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) harmonizing all indirect taxes is a huge step taken with lot of political will. Finally a string of major election successes especially in Uttar Pradesh and other small wins in Delhi civic polls. Low oil price is the cherry in the ice cream. Modi is emerging to be a credible leader due to which economic and business confidence is moving up. There is clearly a Modi wave at play here.

This brings us to the second reason which is foreign fund flows. On the back of Modi wave and in the last one year, the fund flows have reversed from negative to positive. Fund flows can happen either through FDI’s (long-term and stable money) or through FII’s (short-term hot money). In India’s case, it is more of later though FDI’s have also picked up significantly. While in all of 2016, there was a negative flow of Rs14,000 crores (USD 2.17bn), so far during the first five months of 2017, the fund flows totaled Rs.100,000 crores (USD 15.49bn). Due to this the forex reserves at RBI are at an all-time high of USD 370 billion.

Thirdly, the Federal Reserve of US where after 8 to 9 years of ultra-low interest rates close to zero, the arrival of Trump and his policies are expected to reverse that course and increase interest rates. However, due to growth and inflationary concerns that increase is proving to be slow and painful. When interest rates in US do not go up as expected, money starts flowing out of US into other markets in search of yields. India is a sweet beneficiary in this process.

Finally, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). With the change in leadership from Raghuram Rajan to Urjit Patel, RBI seems to have grown more tolerant towards a strong currency. RBI has decisively kept away from the Open Market Operations (OMO) leaving the rupee to settle down wherever the market forces decide. In the past such sharp appreciation in the Rupee would have forced RBI to intervene to protect the interests of exporters. Not this time around.

What is the outlook for INR?

At the beginning of 2017, almost all major investment banks had a negative call on INR. Year-end predictions for INR ranged from 70.8 (Barclays) to 65.5 (Mizhou). However, the continued strength of the currency has made many of them revise their forecast which now ranges from 64.5 (MUFG) to 68 (Nomura).

In the short term (meaning second half of 2017), the Rupee will weaken from the current levels if fund flows start to reverse on the back of some bad news on the Indian economy and Modi front coupled with Fed’s resolve to stick to interest rate increases as announced. Both of them look unfeasible as of now. In other words, the near term outlook for Rupee is one of continued strength and can even approach Rs.62/USD.

In the medium to long-term term (beyond 2017), we should be careful in assuming that INR will continue to be strong. Being an emerging market with all attendant problems, the long-term direction of INR is clearly one of weakening and not strengthening. Until and unless the fund flows into India are FDI and not FII, we should be wary of the hot money leaving the country at the blink of an eyelid. Also, the Modi magic will continue only if his administration moves beyond rhetoric and delivers results as promised. Increasing infrastructure, creating jobs and improving ease of doing business can be tough for an economy that languished for so long. Modi will need two or three terms to fulfill the promises not one.

NRI Strategy

The Kuwait Dinar (which is mostly pegged to USD) was quoting at nearly Rs.230/KD during Feb 2016 and is quoting now at Rs.212/KD which is an 8% reduction in value for NRI’s. Obviously the key question in their mind is whether they should wait for the value to rebound or send money now without waiting. Many of the NRI’s have a regular need to send money home. Hence, they will not have the luxury of timing the remittance. However, for those that enjoy this luxury, given the outlook for continued strength of INR for 2017, it may be a good idea to remit now than later. However as they step into 2018, they will have to turn cautious and expect rupee depreciation.

PS: The author thanks Deepak Radhakrishnan for data assistance

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