India braced for a new era under Modi

Dear readers, it’s been a long while since I wrote a blog post and I must apologize for their absence. I have left my job at Credit Agricole CIB and will be moving from Hong Kong to Singapore to work for another bank. I am currently on gardening leave and am therefore not following market developments anywhere near as closely as I was until I start my new job at the end of June. Nonetheless, given the major events in India over recent days, with the victory of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections, I felt compelled to write something.

Firstly the fact that the BJP won a landslide victory with 282 seats out of a total of 543 ensures that for the first time in decades the government in India does not have to be encumbered by a wide range of political beliefs and views. The consequent inaction a wide ranging coalition would have entailed would lead to renewed policy paralysis. As it is the BJP can form a majority government, with Modi able to emulate the successful reform policies he implemented in his home state of Gujarat while he was Chief Minister there. Being a Gujarati I can’t help but be caught up in the euphoria of what this could mean for India.

In contrast the Congress party and its leaders from the Nehru/Ghandi dynasty suffered a massive defeat, not only throwing them into opposition but shoving them to the margins in terms of political strength. Admittedly there has been a lot of money that has poured into Indian stocks and bonds over recent months but this does not necessarily mean that a BJP majority was priced in. On my last visit to India many of the clients I met actually thought that Modi may have been ousted while it was not felt that he and the BJP would be able to gain an outright majority. In the event he proved doubters wrong. In other words there is still plenty of scope for upside for the rupee and Indian stocks and bonds.

Now before we all get too excited a dose of reality needs to be brought into the mix. The “Gujarat model” was one of rapid improvements in infrastructure, reduction in bureaucracy and red tape and an encouragement of foreign investment. Clearly nothing in India is going to change overnight and adapting the model implemented in Gujarat, a state of 60 million people, to a country of over 1 billion people will not be easy. There will also be risks in terms of social tensions given the more right wing views of Modi and his party. Nonetheless, the strong mandate given to Modi by the electorate was for tough reform and this is what Modi and his style of government is best at.

There is little to time for a Modi honeymoon. The country’s bloated fiscal deficit, persistent current account deficits, elevated inflation, high indebtedness in some sectors, job market rigidities, inconsistent tax policy and masses of red tape and corruption, are only a few of the issues to contend with in a country with a wide spectrum of socio economic standing and religious views. Modi may also have to show some new secular credentials to ensure that his policies do not fuel sectarian tensions, something that may not come easy.

The hope among Indians and foreign investors is that Modi can once again push the economy back onto its fight and move to growth rates closer to 8-9% rather than 4-5% that the country under Congress rule has settled into. The selection of officials especially the Finance Minister will give important policy clues while ensuring that the well regarded central bank governor Rajan retains his post will help solidify confidence. Having been disappointed so many times in the past it is tough not to be skeptical but it may finally be time to throw caution to the wind and give Modi the benefit of the doubt. If anyone is up to the job it appears that Modi has the right credentials for it.

The week ahead

There are plenty of events to chew on over coming days including central bank decisions in Japan tomorrow and New Zealand on Wednesday. The Bank of Japan is unlikely to ease policy further so soon after its actions to boost loan growth while in contrast the RBNZ is set to begin its hiking cycle. On the data front US releases will still be weather impacted to some extent although February retail sales is likely to post a small gain. Moreover, Michigan confidence is set to rise, boosted by higher equity prices.

In Europe, attention will focus on industrial production releases in January, with French and Spanish IP data due to be released today. Overall production is likely to have expanded at a healthy clip of 0.4% MoM in the Eurozone as indicated by survey data. Finally, Australian jobs data is set to show some improvement on Thursday as the pace of deterioration in job market conditions slows.

In Asia the reverberations from the weaker Chinese data will likely impact sentiment across the region. Exports dropped by whopping 18.1% in February while imports rose more strongly than expected at 10.1% yielding a trade deficit of USD 22.99 billion. Central bank decisions in Korea and Thailand are on tap this week. Thailand is a close call, with risks of another policy rate cut but we expect the BoT to stay on hold. Currencies in Asia strengthened last week led by the IDR and INR. Gains this week will be morel limited, especially against the background of higher US yields.

CNY / CNH pressure continues

CNY/CNH the downward pressure is unlikely to abate in the near term. The desire to 1) implement two way risk, 2) higher volatility and 3) curb strong capital inflows 4) prepare for band widening, will not end quickly. A resumption of a strengthening trend in CNY / CNH will undo these aims quickly as inflows resume. Hence, if China really wants to instigate significant volatility in the currency the weakening trend is set to continue for a while to come.

At what level does the weakness in the CNY stop? Well my quantitative model already suggests that USD/CNY has already overshot its short term fair value (6.0904) but the bottom line is that this overshoot may persist for several weeks. Nonetheless, CNY has reversed all of its strength versus USD from early October and further weakness may be less rapid.

Further out, the CNY is likely to resume a stronger tone but this may be some weeks away. China continues to benefit from large foreign exchange reserves and a healthy external balance and this will eventually result in upward pressure on the currency. A move back to around 6.00 versus USD by year end remains likely but China’s authorities will want to ensure that the market does not believe that the path there will be a one way street.

My Interview on Reuters / ET Now

Watch my interview on Reuters / ETNOW. Click on the link below

videoId=276730253&videoChannel=104″>http://in.reuters.com/video/2014/02/06/need-reform-oriented-government-in-india?videoId=276730253&videoChannel=104

“Mitul Kotecha, head of global markets research Asia & FX strategy at Credit Agricole CIB, is more optimistic on emerging markets than before but sees risk aversion among investors in EM equities. He tells ET NOW, investors are awaiting the election outcome and says it’s essential a reform-oriented government comes to power.”

Some respite for emerging market assets

Large gains in many emerging market currencies have been registered in the wake of policy rate hikes in Turkey and to a lesser extent in India. Also some encouraging data in Asia in particular a widening in South Korea’s current account surplus helped to shore up confidence in regional currencies. Not wanting to throw cold water on the move but while everyone is lauding Turkey for its bold move the reality is that its aggressive rate hike will hit growth at a time when its economy is fragile.

The massive rate hike in Turkey (repo rate hiked from 4.5% to 10%) fuelled a bounce in risk appetite nonetheless, although most risk measures have only reversed part of the move registered over recent days. It is way too early to suggest that everything is returning back to normal and the rally in risk assets looks vulnerable to fading out over coming days.

While I am not a proponent of the nervousness in emerging markets turning into a renewed crisis, uncertainty about country specific issues such as slowing growth and deleveraging in China, fundamental and political uncertainties / elections in Thailand, India, Indonesia. Ukraine and countries in the “fragile 5” against the background of Fed tapering, suggest rocky times ahead.

Moreover, the market may have priced in another $10 billion of Fed tapering today but the reality is that the global liquidity injections provided by the Fed will be reduced over coming months. Additionally a likely renewed rise in US Treasury yields will add another layer of pressure on emerging market assets.

Although emerging market currencies have strengthened most G10 currencies remain in a tight range. G10 FX gains were led by the AUD and NZD while JPY came under renewed pressure. This pattern is likely to continue in the near term. Aside from the Fed FOMC there will be some attention on the Reserve Bank of New Zealand too. The RBNZ is expected to keep policy rates unchanged but there is a small chance of rate hike or at the least a hawkish accompanying statement which ought to keep the NZD supported.

Asian currencies under pressure

The close to 1% drop in the USD index over recent days is misleading in terms of the USD’s performance against emerging market currencies where it has registered strong gains. For example the ADXY (Asian USD index) has dropped to its lowest level since early September 2013 and looks set to decline further as Asian currencies face more pressure. The best performers in this environment are traditional safe havens, especially JPY and CHF while the EUR and Scandinavian currencies have also capitalised on the weaker USD.

The drop in the USD against many major currencies reflects the fact that positioning had reached extreme levels prior to the sharp moves at the end of last week. For instance, net long USD speculative positions (according to the CFTC IMM data) had risen to the highest level since June 2013 while in contrast EUR positioning had dropped to its lowest since July 2013. The subsequent position adjustment will have proved to be a healthy correction that will set the USD up for an eventual rebound and the EUR for a sell off.

The sharp drop in US Treasury yields will undermine the USD further in the near term, however, and the mixed slate of US data releases will offer the currency little assistance. Nonetheless, the USD is expected to stay firm against Asian currencies. Notably capital flows from Asian equity markets have increased over recent weeks, with Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand on track to register outflows for the first month of the year. Against this background it is unsurprising that both the KRW and PHP are the two worst performing Asian currencies so far this year. While I expect a reversal in both, the near term outlook is for further pressure.

Dollar undermined by outflows, while flows return to Asia

The Lawrence Summers’ effect (ie his withdrawal from the race to be next Fed Chairman) rippled through markets, with risk appetite improving, buoying equities as well as bonds. As noted yesterday he is perceived to be less in favour of quantitative easing compared to the other leading contender Yellen. Commodity prices including gold prices slipped while the USD remained under pressure. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the Baltic dry index which has risen sharply since the beginning of September, indicating a positive bias for global economic activity in the months ahead.

As markets brace for the Fed to announce modest tapering plans tomorrow risk assets are set to remain supported, especially given expectations that the Fed will counter tapering with reinforced forward guidance. Effectively this means that the negative impact on the market from less Fed asset purchases will be offset by more reassurance that policy will not be tightened too quickly. Additionally helping the tone of positive risk sentiment is the expectation that a deal on Syrian chemical weapons is moving ahead.

The USD has been undermined by capital outflows from the US, improving risk appetite and US data disappointments. While we do not expect the USD to slide much further it is likely to remain under pressure over the short term before resuming appreciation later into Q4 and next year. The USD has failed to benefit from the rise in US Treasury yields over recent months due to foreign sales of Treasuries. The Fed FOMC meeting tomorrow is unlikely to offer the USD any support.

Further evidence of Treasury outflows is likely to be revealed in today’s releaser of the August US Treasury TIC flows data. Eventually I expect higher US yields to attract foreign flows, especially from Japan as life insurance companies etc, boost their holdings of US Treasuries, but over the near term the USD will be undermined by capital outflows.

GBP has rallied strongly over recent weeks both against the USD and EUR but the currency faces some risks from August CPI inflation data today and Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee minutes tomorrow. While a series of positive data surprises has made the job of the MPC harder in terms of establishing its forward guidance, a slight dip in CPI and possible shift of a couple of MPC members to restart voting for more asset purchases (no votes for further purchases at the last meeting) likely to be revealed in the minutes of the September meeting, could provoke some profit taking and act as a short term cap on GBP.

Despite the ongoing pressure on the USD, the rally in Asian currencies appears to have stalled although they continue to remain well supported amid a generally positive risk environment. Returning portfolio investment flows have helped, with the INR in particular benefitting from renewed inflows. The INR took the above consensus August WPI inflation reading in its stride although the data did reinforce the view that the central bank (RBI) will refrain from shifting policy rates at its meeting later this week.

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