Don’t blame Ben



Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has joined others in his government by claiming, at the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg, that the decline in the values of most emerging economy currencies is partly to be blamed on the West.

His argument is that when the Western central banks were pumping money into the system, it inevitably led to capital bloat in countries like India. Now the capital is flowing back, or some of it anyway, and the West should be a bit more mindful of what they are doing.

Really? Singh’s comments are self-serving. Presumably they may help his negotiating stance at the G-20. His claims of having earned a special regard at the G-20 summit are not incorrect – but they are also irrelevant at a time when the developed world is making a comeback and India’s growth rate seems likely to touch four per cent later this fiscal year. International diplomacy is hard-headed stuff.

More to the point, given how Singh has managed the Indian economy, the West doesn’t owe him a thing.

First, right from the start when quantitative easing was announced in its various forms by Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, and this was coupled with the European Central Bank’s rock bottom interest rates, there was no shortage of economists, institutions and whatnot who warned that all this easy money would bloat the emerging economies – and that it would end eventually so the emergers needed to watch themselves carefully. India did nothing of the sort.

Second, it was no secret that the rupee was becoming overvalued during the periods of easy money. The rupee was rising against the dollar and other currencies even as India’s economic growth rate was tapering, inflation remained chronically high and India’s trade deficit was rising. Clearly, the rupee didn’t deserve where it was going and a reckoning had to happen.

Third, the current account deficit was a semi-crisis that was also inevitable. The core macro was that the national savings rate was falling. Again, quite predictable: Indian corporations were seeing profits sink and debts rise, the government’s fiscal deficit was out of control and households were declining to put their money in savings accounts which gave them negative real interest rates.

The surge in gold buying merged the last problem with a cultural affinity for the yellow stuff – and unsurprisingly aggravated the current account deficit more. Again, Singh can’t claim these were not gathering storm clouds hidden from his view.

Fourth, the outflow of foreign institutional investors and the speculators who shorted the rupee also flowed inevitably from the above three. FIIs would dump bonds in a stagflationary India as soon Ben began indicating he would stop selling Treasury bonds.

Speculation against the rupee was also predictable – the forward markets were flashing volatility for quite some time, the hunt for hedges would follow and speculators would come in their trail.

Let’s put it another way. If India had been growing at seven per cent a year, urban consumer inflation had been five per cent, the fiscal deficit under control and the government showing the ability to pass the odd bit of reform legislation – would it have mattered what Ben Bernanke did or did not do?

The answer is No. There would have been a steady flow of foreign direct investment because investor confidence would have been strong. Indian households would not have been pouring their savings into buying gold either – buying this was in large part driven by a lack of confidence in Singh and his government’s ability to control inflation. Yes, some FII money would have exited the bond market here, but it wouldn’t have mattered.

The prime minister is telling the world that the “onus” of ensuring the end of quantitive easing in a way that doesn’t rock countries like India is on the West. The real onus is on him to explain why his government was sleeping at the time Bernanke’s traders were buying Treasury bonds by the billion and putting dollars into the pockets of the world financial system.

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  • David

    There are all excuses for defeat and failure.

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  • Girish

    MMS is a typical babu…. when in trouble blame somebody else, always skirting responsibility. If we do not know him for the last 9 years, we deserve the scams that we have been getting.

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  • Radha Ramachandran

    In blaming the West, MMS comes across as peevish, surprisingly ignorant and enormously ineffective. He came to office with much- admired credentials of an economist. He has forfeited this claim by his do-nothing, say- nothing attitude,his tacit support of corrupt ministers and his presentation as weak and spineless. Realizing now that the people are referring to him with derision and scorn and that he is leaving behind a legacy of failure, he has now started blaming everyone else for his disastrous tenure.

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  • Arbinder Singh

    West seems to have all the power of all sorts. Others are playing a followers’ role. This does mean that any changes in their interest rates and currency calue would have an effect on the rest of the world. American dollar was going down and they made adjustments of initiating the war process with Syria to be able to Flex muscles, utilize their out of date and expiring arsenal and also sell weapons to Syria perhaps at the same time. India on the other hand depends not on War but Self defence. Industry needs more impetus by reducing the imports from China at least, export its small indigeneous cars and then fix the rupee value.

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    Atul Reply:

    Do you know that India is the largest importer of arms and weapon system in the world?

    [Reply]