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.

Asian currencies weaken

Asian currencies are facing pressure today in the wake of a generally firmer USD tone although the fact that US Treasury yields continue to edge lower will provide some relief. There has been some good news on the flow front, with the region registering a return of equity portfolio flows so far this month to the tune of USD 1.56 bn, with all countries except Vietnam registering equity inflows. Notably however, India has registered strong outflows of equity capital this week, which could cap gains in the INR.

Weakness in the CNY and CNH has been sustained with the USD grinding higher against both. Recently weaker economic news and expectations of some form of policy measures on the FX front (perhaps band widening) soon after the end of the National People’s Congress will keep the CNY and CNH under pressure.

March’s biggest outperformer the IDR has been an underperformer overnight although its drop has been small compared to the magnitude of recent gains. Nonetheless, USD/IDR may have found a tough level to crack around 11400.

The INR is set to trade with a marginally weaker tone but further direction will come from today’s releases of January industrial production and February CPI inflation data. A move back to 61.50 for USD/INR is likely unless the data comes in strong.

Chinese yuan drops further

China lowered the CNY’s fixing by 0.18% to 6.1312 per USD today, the biggest cut in the fixing since July 2012 to the weakest level since December 3. The move comes quickly in the wake of the poor trade data over the weekend and in particular the sharp 18.1% drop in exports compared to a year earlier.

Although lunar new year timing may have impacted the data, the drop in exports is still significant and may explain why China has been forcing a weaker currency over recent weeks.

Additionally February inflation data in China was soft, with price pressures recording a broad based decline, with CPI inflation falling to a 13 month low of 2% YoY. The soft inflation data adds further reason for the authorities in China to push for a weaker currency.

USD/CNY and USD/CNH both moving higher in reaction to the data and weaker fixing, with the Chinese currency likely to remain under pressure in the short term both onshore and offshore.

JPY and Asian FX outlook

JPY is facing a double whammy of upward pressure related to both rising risk aversion and a narrowing US yield advantage over Japan. The latter influence has been significant, with 10 year US Treasury yields dropping by around 70bps since the end of last year, versus 10 year Japanese JGB yields. The net result is that the currency pair has fallen sharply over recent weeks and will remain constrained until US yields resume their ascent.

In the near term the escalation of tensions in the Ukraine will fuel increased safe haven demand for JPY potentially leading to a test of a test of technical support around USD/JPY 100.62 (11 September 13 high). However, strong demand around the 101.20-30 level suggests that it may require another leg lower for US yields to fuel a further sharp drop in USD/JPY.

Asian currencies are set to continue to show some relative resilience to events in Ukraine although a weaker bias is expected. Most currencies remain relatively insensitive to gyrations in risk appetite except KRW which registers the biggest correlation with our risk barometer.

Overall, lower US yields will help provide some support to Asian currencies and investors will continue to differentiate based on domestic factors rather than shifts in risk appetite. Additionally some relative stability in the CNY / CNH may also help to limit pressure on Asian currencies.

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.

Australian dollar rallies, Korean won bounces back

On the currency front, the best performers so far this year have been an odd combination of JPY, NZD and AUD versus USD. JPY has benefitted from both compressed yield differentials with the US and risk aversion but its gains are likely to reverse over the coming weeks as these factors reverse.

I have been generally more constructive on AUD and NZD than the consensus and remain so. Both AUD and NZD look oversold and will gradually appreciate further, especially as both the RBA and RBNZ have now likely ended their easing cycles, with the latter set to raise policy rates by the end of this quarter. AUD/USD breached 0.90 this morning helped by a strong business confidence reading for January.

Most Asian currencies have rebounded so far this month, with some of the biggest losers over January recording gains. The KRW has been the best performer in February recording gains despite continued outflows of equity capital. Korea has recorded $1.26 billion in equity outflows so far this month, the highest among Asian countries.

In contrast bond inflows into Korea have been relatively solid over January and this continued into February, helping to provide some support to KRW despite equity outflows. Helping the KRW is the fact that is much less sensitive to US bond yields than many other Asian currencies helping it to avoid any fallout from higher US yields in February. USD/KRW is on path for a break below support around 1070.

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.

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