About Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri has resumed as foreign editor of Hindustan Times after a two year lapse. A member of a clutch of think tanks of which his favourite is an Italian one that takes him to Tuscany most summers, he genuinely likes to muck about the ponderous economic and political issues that make the world turn. On the bright side, he likes chocolate, football and Old Monk Rum.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first budget was a disappointment, his first winter session of Parliament was an embarrassment, his passage of a slew of ordinances was touched by a hint of panic, and it’s still unclear if key economic legislation like insurance FDI and the general services tax will even get past his second budget.

Yet, foreign capital continues to flow. Greenfield foreign investment remains low, though it has at least rebounded from the bottom-scraping levels it reached last fiscal. Once you took out the usual end-of-the-year profit taking, the FII flow into India has been remarkable. And it continues to come in.

The Indian investor remains cautious about the stockmarket. The Indian corporate investor is even more wary. Having been burnt by the previous six or seven years by the last government, they are all waiting for concrete evidence of policy change before they put more money into expanding factories and plants.

Yet the foreigners keep coming.

One reason for this is that there aren’t too many places a foreign emerging market fund manager can put his money. As one equity player in London once told me,” There are a billion pounds in floating emerging market funds that have almost only India to go to these days now that Turkey, Brazil, Russia and a few others are belly-up. The FIIs, he told me, were buying and selling to each other so the Indian investor didn’t really matter.

Two, many overseas investors understand the damage done to the Indian economy by the United Progressive Alliance regime, especially the last five years of the Manmohan singh government. The fiscal deficit remains out of control. Bad loans are clogging up the banking system. The energy sector remains paralysed.

If anything, many of the institutional investors see how this would take a long time to unwind.

What worries them more is the tomtomming of calls for interest rate cuts by various senior government officials. This unnerves long-term financial investors, like pension funds, who focus on the broad parameters of the economy and policy and not short-term measures to get a quick burst of growth. For them, cutting interest rates prematurely is a sign of bad policy, that Modi wants to suborn an independent central bank, and means inflation would come back sooner than later.

They thus applaud Raghuram Rajan’s stance. As a Citibank study noted, India was a good place to be because of three things 1) Rajan, 2) the fall in global commodity prices and 3) Modi’s absolute majority in the lower house. No mention of Arun Jaitley or the key personnel in government.

In other words, Modi’s seeming “haste makes waste” method of governance gets him applaud with foreign investors who seen in this exactly the sort of long-term, stable policy mindset that they want.

Even on foreign policy, New Delhi is working on an ad hoc, ultra-pragmatic approach to diplomacy – and this is earning him points. This lack of geopolitical vision is actually acceptable now because there are no major government to government threats in the region. Sparring on the borders yes, but the chance of even a Kargil type situation is minimal. Modi is doing exactly what a Wall Street investor would want him to do in foreign policy.

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It has not escaped notice that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s many perambulations around the world have, so far, ignored Europe – if refueling stops for his aircraft are ignored. [Read more]

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As the rouble careens southward in value and, more importantly, capital flees Russia’s bleak economic future, the likelihood of capital controls being re-imposed by the Kremlin increases geometrically. Once that happens, the rouble will have isolated itself in a manner that belies Vladimir Putin’s 2009 claim that the “Rouble can claim for the role of a reserve currency.”

The present crisis aside, the future trajectory of the Russian economy looks so bleak – for reasons of demography if nothing else – that the future of the rouble is one of retreat, slowly returning to the Soviet shell it had emerged from post-Cold War. And this in turn will reflect an increasingly inward looking worldview of Moscow’s leadership.

It is interesting to speculate as to the trajectory of the rupee, the currency of an economy about the same size as Russia’s. The answer seems to be that the rupee is following a slow but steady path to the internationalisation that Putin alluded to. But New Delhi will do it in a manner far less outspoken than Moscow. Which is why it may succeed.

I am pretty certain no Indian prime minister and possibly finance minister has publicly spoke of the rupee as being a global reserve currency like the dollar or euro. Such musings are left to the Reserve Bank and central bankers are extremely wary of such an Idea.

G Padmanabhan, deputy central banker of India, in a 2013 speech spoke at length about the rupee becoming a currency of the world. “The Indian rupee is a natural candidate for being considered for greater internationalisation.” But this should be largely in the area of “trade invoicing”, he said, and generally in a “careful and gradual manner.” But most of his speech was about the reasons why the rupee had a long way to go: India’s economy was too small, too prone to current account deficits, too dependent on foreign hot money, too inflation prone and so on. Ultimately, no one was using the rupee overseas.

None of this is a surprise. A macro-economically challenged India, rightly, is cautious to a fault about the health of its currency. What is surprising is, when one looks closer at the figures, despite the lack of enthusiasm of New Delhi – and the opposite sentiment in Moscow – the rupee has become nearly as internationalised as the rouble in recent times. And the economic future of India is much better. The rupee worldview is one of greater integration and, possibly, reserve currency status. We should “aspire” to see the rupee as an “international currency” said Padmanabhan.

The latest Triennial Central Bank Survey of the Bank of International Settlements throws up some interesting numbers regarding rupee versus rouble use in the international markets. One, despite the lack of enthusiasm for such activity by New Delhi, the rupee has been bandied around the international currency markets in a manner comparable to the rouble. Two, the rupee’s rise in the international system has a more stable upward trajectory. And this will be greatly enhanced after the Crimean bust-up between Russia and the West.

Example A: the rouble percentage of global foreign exchange market turnover has gone from 0.3% in 1998 to 0.9 in 2010. The rupee went from 0.1 to 1.0 percent in the same period. By 2013, however, the rouble had jumped to 1.6% while the rupee had stayed at 1.0 – reflecting presumably the halving of India’s economic growth rate in the intervening period. One suspects these trends will reverse for both currencies in the next few years.

Example B: When the global foreign exchange market is divied up by currency and by instrument, the rupee fares surprisingly well. The rouble is much more used: daily average in April 2013 the rouble turnover in such markets was $ 85 billion. The rupee figure was $ 53 billion. But the rouble was used much more heavily in spot transactions while the rupee led the way in outright forwards: $ 24 billion compared to $ 9 billion. Since outright forwards lock a buyer of that currency for a set time at a set exchange rate, the greater rupee figure would seem to be a vote of confidence in the stability of the currency – at least over the rouble.

India’s greatest challenge will be to persuade other countries to consider invoicing their trade in rupees. The currency is still too unstable – it just escaped a meltdown last fall. But compared to the rouble who’s present collapse is just a reminder that it went through the same, only worse, in 1993, the rupee looks like its backed by gold. Over 90% of India’s trade is dollar invoiced and even Bangladesh has rejected the use of the rupee for such purposes.

The recent issuance of rupee bonds by the World Bank slowly helps deepen the pool of instruments that are rupee backed – and financial market depth is a crucial criteria for a reserve currency. But the simple lack of full convertibility and the simple size of the Indian economy means the rupee will go global over a longer time frame. However, one prediction that can be made: the rupee will get a seat at the global high table before the rouble.

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Vladimir Putin, nine years ago, described the Soviet Union’s collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. While one argue whether that was much of a catastrophe given how dysfunctional the Soviet Union had become in its last few decades, from a Russian perspective that might make sense. [Read more]

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The Maoists guerrillas of India are back in the news after a lull of almost half a year. The skirmishing never actually stopped – an Indian Air Force helicopter took bullet fire during the third week of last month, putting one soldier in hospital.

The recent ambush that saw over a dozen Central Reserve Police Force personnel killed was, in military terms, not much of an indicator of where the struggle between government and the guerrillas was going.

Government forces seeing a spike in casualties is nowadays often evidence of that the paramilitary forces are on the offensive, moving deeper and deeper into the forests of east central India that serve as the main hideaways of the Maoists. The casualties may increase, but they are actually evidence of New Delhi asserting its authority.

Who is winning the war? Let us first consider some trends in the Maoist movement in India.

One, the overall casualty rates resulting from Maoist problems has fallen dramatically since violence peaked a few years ago. The peak of violence – in recent times – was 2010 and 2009. The home ministry’s figures indicate that the total number of deaths – civilian, military and guerrilla caused by leftwing extremism – reached 1128 and 1117. Those years were also the only ones when Maoist “incidents” touched over 2220 for the only these two years. Today the annual figures for both indices is about half that.

Two, the nature of the Maoist struggle has changed. The leadership is no longer the middle class intellectuals who gave these movements such an idealistic and romantic image in the 1960s and 1970s. An image that continues to survive among some armchair leftists in India’s urban centres to this day. Today, most of the leaders are of tribal origin, disinterested in ideology and, as a recent Open magazine cover article showed, ignorant of Fidel Castro or Mao himself. But this has also meant that while the movements, as their several Maoist groups who are semi-autonomous in nature, are still representative of tribal marginalization they have become more brutal in their actions, often killing other tribals and sexual exploiting women.

Three, while this is harder to pin down, after visiting Chhattisgarh and the Bastar area, I would argue the government forces are slowly but surely gaining the upper hand against the Maoists. In Raipur, officials talk of bringing the whole red problem to a close in a few years. This certainly exaggerates – Jharkhand must cease to be as dysfunctional as it is today for even a chance of that happening.

But the figures are telling. Despite the great publicity given to large scale ambushes by the Maoists, the numbers show that security forces have seen their losses plummet. Between 2007 and 2010, the government always lost over 200 men, the peak being 2009 with 317 dead. Since then, the figure have halved. In 2013 the losses were only 115. Maoist figures are harder to judge: the organization takes away its dead after fighting and so official figures are just estimates.

But the recent statement celebrating “a decade of struggle” by the Communist Party of India (Marxism-Leninism) was notable for its figure of 2500 deaths in its ranks because of fighting – substantially more than the 1800 that the home ministry gives for the 2003-2013 period. This would indicate a rebellion that has been much harder hit than people realize.

Finally, there is evidence that the economic prosperity and social development is slowly eating away at the sense of deprivation that led to the rise of Maoism in the first place. In a number of states, like Telangana and Andhra, the Maoists have been left hanging by a nail. Chhattisgarh has been a steady economic success story, especially given the very low socio-economic indicators that it began with. Poverty remains, but the sense of hopelessness that led many tribals to turn to the gun may be receding.

The Little Red Book is hardly over, but one gets a sense that rather than the last word on anything it may be heading to be a chapter that may soon be closed.

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