Monday, August 8, 2022

Rupee squirms for global leap; neighbours key to the dream

The Rupee is on at least an 11-year-journey in its quest for quasi international status even as it slides below record 80 to a dollar. The Reserve Bank of India circular is testimony of an anxiety for raving up the economy by endorsing a bid that began in 2011. Since India has taken many baby steps to keep dollar at bay. A dream of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee may come true if the neighbours do not envy and rupee and economy remain stable. Would Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and ASEAN accept it despite RBI paving the way for currency swapping?
These are good dreams for enabling having an international currency status though RBI circular does not make it convertible. The goals are not easy to achieve when rupee continues to slip rapidly slowing down growth to 4.7 percent as per Nomura. It stresses on policy changes, softer taxes to strengthen the purchasing capacity of individual citizens and protect their wealth to contend with the mighty dollar.
Soviet Union had a rupee-rouble trade arrangement but reincarnated Russia scrapped it in 1990s. Recently too Russia was given the offer to go back to the old arrangement. It has not expressed interest in accepting rupee though it wants payments in rouble, post-Ukrainian war. It does not help India as only through a dollar conversion it can pay in rouble. Iran till recently having a close relationship accepted rupee payment amid US sanctions. This was undone by India due to the US pressure. Iran still may work it out provided the sanctions do not deter.
But neither Bangladesh nor Sri Lanka despite high trading ever accepted the swap. Would Indians accept Bangladesh ‘taka’? Rupee is accepted unofficially, in, legal or not, border trades but taka still is not a preference. The enabling provisions apart, Sri Lanka through its worst crisis takes $ 3 billion loan from India in foreign exchange. The country feels that it would have ready acceptance to its offer from smaller neighbours. Sri Lanka got into the trap of China and today in turmoil. Bangladesh with over dozen large projects with Chinese assistance is witnessing discontent within. Despite a favourable Awami League rule under Sheikh Hasina, sentiments are less pro-India. Myanmar has recently agreed to accept Thai baht in border trade dealings and reportedly plans a similar arrangement for Indian rupee seeking to limit reliance on the US dollar.
The Russia-Ukraine war has led to shortage, protectionism and a wave of defaults. It has led to weakening of world growth, high inflation and uncertainty for India with myriad issues like consistent trade deficits of $ 20 billion a month for almost a year. The currency reserves now reduced to $ 588 billion as 50 percent of imports have seen price surge. Trade deficits may touch $ 250 billion this year.
India’s trade with Gulf countries crosses $ 175 billion in 2021-22, for much of its oil imports and has investments of $ 16 billion. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement sealed by India and the United Arab Emirates on February 2022 is expected to facilitate Indian exporters gain access to the Arab and African markets besides increasing the two-way trade to USD 100 billion in the next five years from current USD 60 billion. But the region does not want rupee trading. The latest RBI move is not a new deal. The UPA government in 2013 had finalized a list of 23 countries with which India could have swap trade in local currencies to save precious foreign exchange. The list included Angola, Algeria, Nigeria, Oman, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Qatar, Yemen and Saudi Arabia and a task force was set up under the then special secretary Rajiv Kher, which in 2014 endorsed the traditional swap model.
In 2011, India and Japan agreed to $ 15 billion currency swap as Japan’s then prime minister Yoshihiko Noda agreed to support the troubled Indian rupee, Asia’s worst performing currency then at Rs 55.39 to a dollar. It was proposed to be increased to $ 75 billion in 2018 by the NDA government. For this a conversion rate is decided and later both the countries repay the amount at the same exchange rate. These are linked to London inter-bank rate, called Libor. Japan has done this with a number of countries like China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Madan Sabnavis, chief economist CARE ratings observed that such arrangements were there but never used nor it impacted the market but gives some leverage to RBI.
India’s three free trade agreements with the ASEAN, Japan and South Korea have not turned out to be favourable for the country as these resulted in growing deficits in merchandise trade, according to a study published by think-tank Third World Network. It means the FTAs need a review as the perceived benefits elude.
It is erroneous to believe that rupee is losing only because of the present Ukrainian war. There are many other reasons and details have to be listed. The inherent conditions in the country, the 7.1 percent retail and 15.18 percent (down from 15.88 percent) wholesale price rises, 32 percent hike, in a year, of commodity prices and flight of foreign manufacturers significantly contributed to the crisis. One may wonder why despite 9.1 percent US inflation the dollar values increase. It is attributed to the US Fed Reserve decision to increase real interest rates. It assures higher returns to the investor. India has yet to develop that intrinsic strength. Some peculiar policies also affect India’s economic performances. High taxes on fuels, and the quixotic idea of junking two crore Euro IV and VI cars by 2025 does not add to the value of the rupee. It hits below the belt on its march to atmanirbhar Bharat. It adds to severe plastic pollution
Blasting of Himalayas and forests has become fad for development. It hurts every citizen, the image of the country, great wealth loss and impoverishes the country. It overlooks that each new car have components that have to be imported and cause further erosion in foreign exchange. Each new car production also hits air quality. The silly UPA rule brought in through the National Green Tribunal has destablised the market. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should personally intervene to scrap it.
A mix of policy changes and push to the real growth would make the rupee more acceptable and not a mere official circular.

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