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.

Bernanke awaited, RBI stays on hold

Central banks are very much in the spotlight. Whether it’s poor communication or disappointment over the lack of fresh stimulus measures in Japan or opposition to the European Central Banks’ (ECB) OMT policy being debated in the German constitutional court there is much to focus on. Against the background of heightened volatility and elevated risk aversion the Fed FOMC meeting on Wednesday will garner even more attention than usual.

Although no change in policy settings is expected the ability of Fed Chairman Bernanke to communicate effectively the Fed’s strategy over ‘tapering’ will be crucial to determine whether market volatility persists or lessens. Ultimately markets are likely to successfully transition to a world of reduced Fed asset purchases but this may take a while. In the meantime market stress is set to remain elevated.

Aside from the Fed FOMC meeting US data releases are likely to continue to show encouraging signs of housing market recovery, with US May housing starts and April existing home set to reveal gains. Meanwhile, CPI inflation will remain benign in May while the June Empire manufacturing survey today will reveal a slight improvement.

In Europe, there will be attention on a Eurogroup meeting on Wednesday where banking union will be discussed while data releases include the June German ZEW investor confidence survey (slight drop likely) and the flash estimates of June purchasing managers’ indices. These are likely to look less negative although they are set to remain in contraction territory. In Japan, May trade data will likely show a widening in deficit as weaker external demand outweighs the impact of a weaker JPY.

In FX markets USD selling against major currencies is likely to slow. The 4.4% drop in the USD index from its highs in late May has been rapid but it has led to a major shift in positioning. Speculative USD long positions have been cut back significantly, while EUR positioning is almost back to flat after being extremely short in previous weeks. Similarly JPY short positions are beginning to be pared back. I suspect that the EUR in particular will struggle to make much more headway.

Weakness of the USD against major currencies has contrasted sharply with USD strength against emerging market currencies. The sell off in Asian currencies has been particularly sharp although there was some tentative recovery towards the end of last week. The INR followed by the most risk sensitive currencies including PHP and THB have suffered the most over recent weeks.

The INR’s vulnerability has been particular high due to its external funding requirements although it may show some tentative signs of recovery over coming days as its sell off has looked overdone. The Reserve Bank of India policy meeting today offered no help for the INR. Although it was a close call there was a significant minority looking for a rate cut to boost growth. The lack of action will weigh on the INR in the short term.

Indian Rupee – How low can it go?

Sentiment for the Indian rupee (INR) has gone from bad to worse. A number of concerns have hit the currency including weak economic data, deteriorating confidence in government policies, and intensifying risk aversion. The latest blow to the rupee came from data showing that economic growth in Q1 2012 slowed to 5.3% the slowest pace of growth in nine years. Worryingly high interest rates in the wake of persistent inflation pressures have damaged investment spending, a major weak point in the Q1 data. High inflation at over 7% means that the Reserve Bank of India has limited room to ease policy but the central bank has hinted at lower rates in the wake of lower oil prices.

These economic pressures have come at a time when the global environment has worsened. India was already more vulnerable compared to its Asian neighbours due it’s twin current account and fiscal deficits. Strong growth had put concerns about these deficits on the backburner but with growth slowing it only exposes India’s fragility. While less exposed to a global trade slowdown compared to other countries in the region India nonetheless is highly exposed to financial contagion. The INR is a high beta currency, sensitive to the vagaries of risk. The rise in risk aversion over recent weeks left the currency highly vulnerable as its sharp decline attests to.

Despite a host of regulation changes from the authorities the INR has continued to fall, with no let up in sight. While the RBI has suggested that it could sell USDs to oil companies to stem the decline in the rupee it may only result in slowing INR declines in the current environment. It’s decline against the USD has surpassed other Asian currencies. Interestingly there has not been a major exodus of portfolio capital from India, surprising given that other Asian countries such as Korea and Taiwan have seen significant outflows of equity capital. Nonetheless an escalation in the Euro crisis could quite easily change the picture for the worse.

It is not all bad news for the INR. While it will remain under pressure for some time yet from a valuation perspective the INR is looking increasingly cheap. I wouldn’t run out and buy it just yet but I would argue that a lot of bad news is already priced in to the currency. Investors will need to see some better news both externally and domestically and unfortunately this is lacking, but should risk appetite began to turn around the potential for rupee appreciation is significant for a currency that has lost close to around 20% of its value over the last 12 months. In the meantime, the best that could be hoped for is a slowing in the pace of depreciation, with a fall to around 57-58 versus USD on the cards over coming weeks.

RBA on hold, RBI hikes rates

News of the death of Osama Bin Laden gave the USD a lift and its gains have extended for a second day. Extreme short market positioning as well as increasing risk aversion (perhaps due to worries about retaliation following Bin Laden’s death) have helped the USD.

However, the boost to the USD could be short-lived in the current environment in which it remains the preferred global funding currency. Indeed, the fact that US bond yields have dropped sharply over recent weeks continues to undermine the USD against various currencies.

The USD firmed despite the US ISM manufacturing index dropping slightly, albeit from a high level. The survey provided some useful clues to Friday’s US jobs report, with the slight decline in the employment component of the ISM survey to 62.7 consistent with a 200k forecast for April payrolls.

Ahead of the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting on Thursday hawkish rhetoric from new Council member and Bundesbank chief Weidmann (replacing Weber) and more reassurances from Greek and EU officials that there will be no debt restructuring or haircut on the country’s debt has helped the EUR although it is notable that it could not sustain a foot hold above 1.49. Eurozone bond yields have risen by around 20bps compared to US yields over the past month, a fact that suggests that the EUR may not fall far in the short-term.

USD/JPY is trading dangerously close to levels that may provoke FX intervention by the Japanese authorities. General USD weakness fuelled a drop in USD/JPY which has been exacerbated by a rise in risk aversion over recent days (higher risk aversion usually plays in favour of a stronger JPY). The biggest determinant of the drop in USD/JPY appears to a narrowing in bond yields (2-year bond yields have narrowed by around 20bps over the past month) largely due to a rally in US bonds.

Unsurprisingly the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) left its cash rate on hold at 4.75%. The accompanying statement showed little inclination to hike rates anytime soon, with credit growth noted as modest, pressure from a stronger exchange rate on the traded sector and temporary prices shocks which are expected to dissipate. The only indication that rates will eventually increase is the view that longer term inflation is expected to move higher.

I look for further rate hikes over coming months even with the AUD at such a high level. AUD has lost a bit of ground after hitting a high just above 1.10 against the USD and on the margin the statement is slightly negative for AUD. A slightly firmer USD overall and stretched speculative positioning, with IMM AUD positions close to their all time high, points to some downside risks in the short-term.

In contrast India’s central bank the RBI hiked interest rates by more than many expected. Both the repo and reverse repo rates were raised by 50bps, with the central bank governor highlighting renewed inflation risks in his statement. The decision reveals a shift in RBI rhetoric to an even more hawkish bias in the wake of rising inflation pressures, which should be beneficial to the rupee.

Currencies At Pivotal Levels

Ahead of today’s highly anticipated Fed FOMC meeting markets are holding their breath to determine exactly what the Fed will deliver. The consensus view is for the Fed to announce a programme of $500 billion in asset purchases spread over a period of 6-months. The reaction in currency markets will depend on the risks around this figure. Should the Fed deliver a bigger outcome, say in the region of $1 trillion or above, the US dollar will likely come under renewed pressure. However, a more cautious amount of asset purchases will be US dollar positive.

It has to be noted that the Fed will likely keep its options open and keep the program open ended depending on the evolution of economic data which it will use to calibrate its asset purchases. The USD will likely trade with a soft tone ahead of the Fed outcome, but with so much in the price, it may be wise to be wary of a sell on rumour, buy on fact outcome.

Whatever the outcome many currencies are at pivotal levels against the USD at present, with AUD/USD flirting around parity following yesterday’s surprise Australian rate hike, EUR/USD holding above 1.4000, GBP/USD resuming gains above 1.600 despite a knock back from weaker than forecast construction data, whilst USD/JPY continues to edge towards 80.00. Also, both AUD and CAD are trading close to parity with the USD. The Fed decision will be instrumental in determining whether the USD continues to remain on the weaker side of these important levels.

Going into the FOMC meeting the USD has remained under pressure especially against Asian currencies as noted by the renewed appreciation in the ADXY (a weighted index of Asian currencies) against the USD this week. Although it appears that the central banks in Asia have the green light to intervene at will following the recent G20 meeting the strength of capital inflows into the region is proving to be a growing headache for policy makers. One option is implementing measures to restrict “hot money” inflows but so far no central bank in the region has shown a willingness to implement measures that are deemed as particularly aggressive.

There has been some concern that Asia’s export momentum was beginning to fade as revealed in September exports and purchasing managers index (PMI) data in the region and this in turn could have acted as a disincentive to inflows of capital, resulting in renewed Asian currency weakness. The jury is still out on this front but its worth noting that Korean exports in October reversed a large part of the decline seen over previous months. Moreover, the export orders component of Korea’s PMI remained firm suggesting that exports will resume their recovery.

Nonetheless, manufacturing PMIs have registered some decline in October in much of Asia suggesting some loss of momentum, with weaker US and European growth likely to impact negatively. However, China’s robust PMI, suggests that this source of support for Asian trade will remain solid. Similarly a rise in India’s manufacturing PMI in October driven largely by domestic demand, highlights the resilience of its economy although with inflation peaking its unlikely that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will follow its rate hike on Tuesday with further tightening too quickly.

What To Watch This Week

Well so much for a “risk on” week. Market sentiment soured at the end of last week following The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) civil action against Goldman Sachs, in which they accused the bank of fraud. The impact reverberated across markets and risk trades were pulled back as a consequence. Bulls shouldn’t be too downhearted though as the drop in risk trades followed several days of gains and part of the pullback could be attributed to profit taking.

Speculation of similar probes in Europe by financial regulators will cast a shadow over markets early this week. Nonetheless, direction will at least in part come from earnings. So far the run of earnings looks upbeat, with around 83% of the 48 S&P 500 companies reporting, beating analysts’ estimates. Overall profits are forecast to increase by around 30% from a year ago but are on track to easily beat this estimate. Bellwether names including IBM, Apple, Coca-Cola, Boeing, Microsoft, and AT&T report this week.

The meeting between Greek officials, ECB, IMF and EU has been delayed until Wednesday. There is little likelihood of Greece seeing any loan money soon as the need for parliamentary approval in some EU countries and upcoming regional elections in Germany on 9 May will put a spanner in the works. An issue of EUR 1.5bn of 3-month Greek debt tomorrow will act another test of market confidence but the recent widening in Greek debt spreads suggests a less positive reception than the previous sale.

There are also a few central bank meetings to contend with this week including Canada, Sweden, India, Philippines and Thailand. The only Bank likely to hike interest rates out of this bunch is the RBI in India with another hike expected, following closely on the heels of the March move. Canada and Sweden are unlikely to shift policy until at last after the end of Q2 whilst protests in Bangkok, Thailand, and the knock on impact on consumer confidence, have effectively sealed the case for no rate move there.

On the data front, attention will turn to US housing market activity. Markets will be able to gauge further clues to whether recovery in the housing market has stalled. An increase in both existing (Thu) and new home sales (Fri) in March is expected, which may allay some concerns although any improvement is likely to continue to fragile against the background of tight credit and high foreclosure levels.

In Europe, aside from the ongoing Greek sage, sentiment surveys will garner most attention, with the release of the German ZEW (Tue) and IFO (Fri) surveys as well as manufacturing and service sector purchasing managers indices (PMIs) across Europe. On the whole the surveys are likely to reveal some improvement as confidence.

Risk aversion will be slightly elevated at the beginning of this week but strong earnings and improving data will help to prevent too much damage. Consequently Risk currencies will start the week under pressure but any pullback will be limited. Given that speculative positioning in risk currencies such as the AUD, NZD and CAD is well above their three-month average according to the latest Commitment of Traders’ IMM data there will be some scope for profit taking. EUR speculative sentiment has seen some improvement but EUR/USD remains vulnerable to a further pull back to technical support around 1.3302 this week.

Greek Confusion, India Tightening

It is highly interesting that markets could take fright from a rate hike in India but this appears to be what has happened. India’s surprise 25bps rate hike has provoked another bout of risk aversion whilst the lack of any concrete agreement on a framework for a Greek bail out dealt a further blow to confidence. FX tensions between the US and China have not helped, with China threatening retaliation to any US move to name the country as a currency manipulator in the mid April US Treasury report.

Should we really be worried by a rate hike in India or China? Whilst the India rate move reflects the fact that emerging market central banks are moving far more aggressively to raise rates than their G7 counterparts, global fears that India’s move will dampen recovery prospects are unfounded. Monetary tightening in India and China and other economies is taking place against the backdrop of economic strength not weakness.

As such the global impact on growth should be limited. Rising inflation pressure in Asia is reflection of the much quicker economic recovery, relatively low rates and undervalued currencies in the region. Not only will central banks in Asia have to raise interest rates but will also have to allow further currency appreciation.

There is still plenty of confusion about a bail out for Greece ahead of the 25-26th March EU summit. German Chancellor Merkel dampened expectations of a bailout by stating that it was not even on the agenda for the summit. In contrast, EU President Barroso has pushed EU members to agree on an explicit stand-by aid agreement for Greece as soon as possible.

There is also disagreement about whether there should be any IMF involvement, with Germany favouring some help from the Fund whilst France opposes it. Meanwhile, the Greek Prime Minister has reportedly given an ultimatum that should no aid plan be forthcoming at the EU summit, Greece will turn to the IMF for assistance.

All of this suggests more downside for EUR/USD, with a test of support around 1.3422 looming. In the event that the EU summit offers good news for Greece, EUR/USD sentiment could turn quickly so a degree of caution is warranted. Speculative sentiment for the EUR has improved according to the latest CFTC Commitment of Traders (IMM) data for the week to 16th March, with net short EUR positions at their lowest since the beginning of February. Nonetheless, the short covering seen over the past week could come to an abrupt end should there be no aid package for Greece.

The most volatile currency over the past week was GBP/USD and after hitting a high of around 1.5382 it has slid all the way back to around the 1.5000 level. Much of this was related to the gyrations in EUR/USD but GBP took on a life of its own towards the end of the week and has not been helped by comments by BoE MPC member Sentence who highlighted the risk of a “double-dip” recession in the UK.

GBP is highly undervalued and market positioning is close to a record low but a sustainable recovery looks unachievable at present. Attention this week will centre on the 2010 UK Budget announcement and markets will scrutinise the details of how the government plans to cut the burgeoning budget deficit. Failure to restore some credibility to the government’s plans will dent GBP sentiment further and lead to a sharper decline against both the EUR and USD.

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