Mumbai: The rupee touched its all-time low against the dollar on Thursday, as foreign institutional investors, or FIIs, continued pulling out of India and other emerging markets.
The currency closed at 50.15/16 to a dollar, somewhat better than the intraday low of 50.60, as India’s state-owned banks started selling dollars on behalf of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to prevent the rupee from falling even more.
In 2008, the rupee has now lost about 22% against the dollar and, according to foreign exchange dealers, it is unlikely this downtrend will reverse until FIIs start buying Indian stocks and sentiments in equity market become less bearish.
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Meanwhile, the Sensex, India’s bellwether equity index of the Bombay Stock Exchange, dropped 3.68% to below 8,500 levels on Thursday, as indices across Asia fell sharply, on Wednesday’s 5% fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average on the New York Stock Exchange. The DJIA was trading 149 points, or 1.9%, down at 7,848.02 at 8.45pm India time on Thursday.
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In the last seven trading sessions, the Sensex has fallen 19.8% or 2,085.15 points, to 8,451.01. Since January, the index has now lost 58.3%.
The National Stock Exchange’s broader 50-stock Nifty index fell 3.1% to 2,500 levels on Thursday. Most major Asian market indices were down significantly. Japan’s Nikkei was down about 7% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 4%. European markets also were trading sharply lower on Thursday.
“There is no doubt that there is a debt deflation bust at work in America. The issue which macro traders will be increasingly focusing on is the risk that the American economy can fall into an outright price deflation,” said Christopher Wood, chief strategist at foreign brokerage CLSA Asia Pacific Markets, in his Thursday report. “If there is more forced deleveraging to come in the hedge fund space, it is most likely to stem from the opaque world of credit hedge funds,” Wood said.
Merrill Lynch’s Asia strategist Mark Mathews, in his report on Wednesday titled Big Foreign Selling of Asia, noted that India has witnessed net foreign fund outflow in 13 of the last 14 weeks. A $13 billion net outflow from India this year is the third highest in Asia.
With the Sensex at 8,000 levels, the Life Insurance Corp. of India, the largest investor in local equity markets, has renewed buying, said one of its senior officials without wanting to be named. Large mutual funds, which were also waiting for the markets to come to lower levels to start large buying, are now deploying money, claimed some brokers.
Market mood: People look at a large screen displaying the Sensex on the facade of the Bombay Stock Exchange building in Mumbai. The Sensex fell 3.7% on Thursday to its lowest close in at least three years. Reuters
Apart from the Japanese yen, all 10 actively traded currencies in Asia fell against the dollar on Thursday as investors rushed to buy dollars to park their money in US treasury bills, supposedly the safest asset class in the world.
The Indonesian rupiah fell to its lowest since August 1998, amid an Asian financial crisis, and South Korean won, the worst performer among all Asian currencies, extended its fall to 37% this year.
“The US dollar is appreciating consistently across all major currencies except Japanese yen due to safe haven demand ... on fear of global recession,” said L. Subramanian, chief currency dealer, ICICI Bank Ltd. “However, rupee is not expected to fall freely due to the possibility of public sector banks’ intervention. But gradual depreciation is possible if dollar appreciates further against other major and Asian currencies.”
According to dealers, RBI sold less than $1 billion in dollars on Thursday. The aggressive dollar selling by the Indian central bank this year has brought down its foreign currency reserves to $251.4 billion in the first week of November from $316 billion in May.
Earlier this month, the rupee strengthened to 47.20 to a dollar after touching its then all-time low of 50.29 in the last week of October. The currency started falling again after RBI stopped intervening in the market.
According to Kiran, Yes Bank Ltd.’s associate director of foreign exchange who goes by just one name, the hands-off approach of the central bank is in line with emerging market practice and RBI will now only sell dollars to prevent rapid depreciation of the local currency.
“In all Asian currency markets, the strength of intervention has slowed down. I think this is mainly to help the exporters,” said Kiran.
A depreciating rupee helps the exporters as they get more when their dollar bill is converted. India’s exports this year fell for the first time in five years as demand for goods in the overseas market slowed.
Most of the foreign exchange dealers are not ready to take a call on the level of the rupee.
“We have to go with the volatility. It would be foolish to take a view now. Tomorrow, if RBI does something positive for the market, rupee will strengthen,” said the treasurer of a private bank who didn’t want to be identified.
“People are taking a weekly view. The market is reacting to every news flows,” said Agam Gupta, head of treasury at Standard Chartered Bank. “We expect a range-bound market with weakening bias. It’s difficult to point out a figure.”
However, JPMorgan Chase bank’s India strategist Vikas Agarwal is optimistic on the rupee’s strength due to a variety of factors, such as decreasing current account deficit owing to lower oil prices, a potentially reduced pace of withdrawal from foreign portfolio investors, strong foreign direct investment, and encouraging RBI policy steps.
“Still, the short-term risks persist and it might take a while for financial markets to stabilize and de-leveraging to turn a smaller influence in determining asset market direction,” he added.
JP Morgan expects rupee at 48 a dollar by March. But Subramanian of ICICI Bank said the rupee could depreciate to 53 level in the next three-four months.
In 2007, the rupee rose 12.5% against the dollar to near a decade high of 39.12. FIIs pumped in net $17.36 billion into the local equity market last year taking the Sensex to 21,000 points by this January . So far this year, FIIs have taken out about $13 billion from the equity market.