Sunday, 2 November 2008

India Hawalas Undermining the Rupee Exchange Rate

American fund managers investing in the emerging markets today are fundamentally assuming that, over a given time horizon, profits from equity investments will far exceed losses from currency devaluations. That assumption needs to be contextualized in the reality that, if investments in emerging markets like India were made on a fully hedged (forex risk) basis today, mutual funds would be forced to realize significant losses in their financial statements at the very outset.

The Indian rupee far forward rate, to offset currency risk on 3-year equity investments, will result in a net loss of about 24% today for dollar investors. Thinly traded 5-year contracts to purchase dollars are being offered at a premium of 35%. Few fund managers are known to actually offset foreign exchange risk unless, of course, they are confronted with panic conditions, like those witnessed this month.

Forward premiums apart, the rupee has lost 20% of its value against the dollar during the course of this year. There are several reasons to anticipate another 15% move downwards by early 2009 and to predict a further widening of forward differentials. Interestingly, the single most powerful indicator of the fate of the rupee is the behaviour of “hot” money being generated every day by India’s huge and powerful underground economy.

Dubai’s “hawala” traders claim that over $300 million has left India’s shore this month alone; hawala currency exchanges are executed outside mainstream banking channels with an exceptionally high degree of anonymity. India’s central bank, which periodically intervenes in the inter-bank foreign exchange markets for limited durations, has no ability whatsoever to control the flow of cash in the hawala system. Further bad news from the global economy, like yesterday’s downgrade in Pakistan’s credit rating, will only increase hot money outflows.

Besides, the only inference one can draw form statistical data is that the Indian economy is now in reversal, as opposed to being in the midst of a cyclical downturn as many asset managers would like to believe, with several sectors contracting at an alarming rate. The default rate amongst 30 million credit card holders is likely to breach 22% before the end of this year, by conservative estimates. The crisis in housing will force most of India’s leading real estate companies to renege on their debt service obligations in forthcoming weeks. Speaking of consumer confidence, a recent survey showed that more than 50% of working Indians fear losing their jobs in 2009. Darkening the scenario are rising food prices, which have been steadily chipping away at the value of middle- and lower-income family incomes since the commodity boom began in mid-2007.

Before fund managers invest in India or, for that matter, in other emerging markets, they should ask themselves the same three questions which the holders of underground capital, the ones with most at stake on a daily basis, ask themselves each morning: How much of the phenomenal growth in consumer spending power in this decade can be attributed to easy credit? Is the debt-induced fairy tale coming to an end? And, perhaps most importantly, are poverty levels in the urban and rural centres creating the potential for deep-rooted social unrest?

The short India trade is justified by both, currency risk arbitrage considerations and the status of the Indian economy. Such a short trade may not be possible to execute in the equity exchanges. But the short India canvas is wide enough: buy synthetic shorts on exchange-trade India funds and shares on each rally, buy stock index puts in similar fashion, and buy 3-year sovereign default risk and far forward dollars now.

The Rest @ Quoteplatform

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