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.

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.”

Is the Asian FX rally losing steam?

Asian currencies appear to have lost some of their upward momentum over recent days.  Although the outlook remains positive further out, they are likely to struggle to make further gains over coming weeks.  One the one hand strong inflows into Asian equity markets have given support to currencies but on the other hand, data releases reveal only a gradual economic recovery is taking place, with continued pressure on the trade front as seen in the weakness in recent export data in the region.  Even China has been cautious about the prospects of recovery in the country.   

Almost all currencies in Asia have recouped their losses against the US dollar so far this year, with the Indonesian rupiah the star performer, having strengthened by over 11% since the start of the year.  More recently the Indian rupee has taken up the mantle of best performer, strengthening sharply following the positive outcome of recent elections.  The rupee has strengthened by around 3.5% since the beginning of the year and its appreciation has accelerated post elections.   

Much of the gain in the rupee can be attributable to the $4.4 billion of inflows into local equity markets over the last few months, a far superior performance to last year when India registered persistent outflows. Notably in this respect, the Philippines peso is set to struggle as foreign flows into local equities lag far behind other countries in the region.  Inflows into Phililipines stocks have been just $226 million year-to-date as fiscal concerns weigh on foreign investor sentiment.   

South Korea has been the clear winner in terms of equity capital inflows in 2009, with over $6 billion of foreign money entering into the Korean stock market.  Elsewhere, Taiwan has benefited from the prospects of growing investment flows from China and in turn equity market inflows have risen to around $4.3 billion supported by news such as the recent report  that Taiwan will allow mainland Chinese investors to invest in 100 industries.  Equity inflows into these currencies are far stronger than over the same period in 2008, highlighting the massive shift in sentiment towards Asia and emerging markets in general.

Unsurprisingly stock markets in Asia have been highly correlated with regional currencies over recent months, with almost all currencies in Asia registering a strong directional relationship with their respective equity markets.  Recent strong gains in equities have boosted currencies but this relationship reveals the vulnerability of currencies in the region to any set back in equities, which I believe could come from a reassessment of the market’s bullish expectations for Asian recovery.  

Central banks in the region have been acting to prevent a further rapid strengthening in Asian currencies by intervening in FX markets but a turn in equity markets and/or risk appetite could do the job for them and result in a quick shift in sentiment away from regional currencies. The Indonesian rupiah remains one to watch in terms of further upside potential, supported by the Asian Development Bank’s $1bn loan to Indonesia.   The outlook for the Indian rupee also looks favourable as post election euphoria continues.  Nonetheless, the gains in these and other Asian currencies have been significant and rapid and I believe there is scope for a pull back or at least consolidation in the weeks ahead.

Will India remain in the shadows?

Indian markets rejoiced in a big way following the outcome of the elections which put the secular Congress party back into power as the head of the United Progressive Alliance.   Stocks in India rose by a massive 17% and the rupee strengthened as markets gave a huge thumbs up to the outcome.   The margin of victory was bigger than had been expected and allows Congress to form a government with only minimal help from outside parties.  

Given that many had feared that the election would result in another unstable coalition supported by diverse parties each acting in their own interests,  the outcome was very positive.  In the event the result provides Congress with a strong mandate for change and reform.  The real question is whether they will grasp the opportunity or let it slip by and fall further behind into the shadow of China. 

There are of course many challenges that need to be faced on the home front including the alleviation of poverty for a huge chunk of the population, improving education, access to health care etc.   India also needs to move ahead with infrastructure spending, something which remains key to unlocking India’s potential growth and moving towards the pace of growth achieved by China.    As a comparison India spends around 6% of GDP on infrastructure spending compared to around 15% in China.   The results of such spending are obvious when looking at the pace of growth of both countries, with India growing relatively more slowly than China.

The issue is that even if the government has the mandate and the will to move forward with long awaited spending on infrastrucure, finding the money is the main problem.   The Indian government identified the need for $500 billion in infrastructure spending between 2007 and 2012 but the global financial crisis has seen a lot of potential investment disappear as banks bec0me increasingly strapped for cash and foreign investment shrinks due to lack of funding and an aversion to risk.   Restrictions on investments by funds that could potentially invest have also not helped whilst the government is limited in its spending by a huge fiscal deficit.    

The Congress party will need to grasp the opportunity that the election result has brought it and move forward to entice the investment needed to push forward with infrastructure plans.   One of the benefits of India’s slow pace of reform and gradual opening up of the economy is that the country has avoided the worst of the global economic crisis.  Even China will find it a huge challenge to shift its growth engine from export orientated growth to domestic consumption.  India is in a good position to take advantage of its relative resilience and now has a government with a strong mandate to do so.    It would be a great pity for India and the rest of the world, given the potential for the country to become a much stronger trading power, if the government did not take this opportunity by the horns once the celebrations are over.   If not, the rally in Indian markets may prove to have been a fleeting one.

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