India shielded from US downturn, other risks seen

India shielded from US downturn, other risks seen

New Delhi, 6 September A small reliance on exports means India’s economy is shielded from a potential US downturn, but growth could be stunted if current market turbulence is the start of a longer-term reversal in global risk appetite.

Other Asian economies, such as South Korea and Malaysia, are more reliant on exports, leaving them vulnerable if the US crisis sparked by rising defaults in subprime mortgages prompts a major slowdown in the world’s biggest economy.

Paradoxically, one of India’s biggest export sectors -- its iconic outsourcing industry -- could even benefit if American firms look to the likes of Infosys to cut costs during a downturn, analysts say.

“India’s global linkages are much weaker than other emerging economies," Tushar Poddar, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, said in a research report.

Poddar estimates a 1.0% cut in US expansion would shave 0.25% off India’s growth, which was a cracking 9.3% annual rate in the April-June quarter.

“Thus it is difficult to see any major impact of a subprime-induced US slowdown on India, where the structural growth story remains intact driven by higher productivity and investment," he said in a report.

India’s merchandise exports of around $130 billion account for just 13% of India’s trillion-dollar economy. Only 15% of exports were US bound in the fiscal year to the end of March 2007.

India’s financial markets seem to bear out the view that the economy has a thicker layer of insulation against a US downturn that some other Asian countries.

India’s benchmark stock market is more globalised than the broader economy, analysts say.

Still, after dropping 13% from a record level set just before a global wave of subprime-related selling washed through world markets in July and August, it is now just 2% off that peak.

The rupee fell 3.6% from a nine-year peak, but has recovered to stand only 1.7 % below the high.

Other regional markets have not fared so well.

In South Korea, the benchmark stock index dropped more than 19% from a July high and now stands 7.5% below that peak.

Malaysia’s benchmark index dropped 18% from its July peak and is now 7% off that level.

Vital statistics

India’s outsourcing sector, which caters to the back-office operations of international firms such as Wall Street banks, earns most of its revenues from US contracts.

Some firms catering to the US mortgage market have felt the subprime turbulence, but others, like Infosys Technologies see opportunities.

Last week, Infosys, the second-largest software services exporter, said that after an initial hiatus as clients worked out what the credit crunch meant, outsourcing and offshoring business would gain as customers looked to cut costs.

India’s IT and IT services exports were $31.4 billion in 2006/07.

India’s main growth drivers are services and manufacturing, backed by rising demand from growing middle class in the 1.1 billion population.

An investment rate of around 35% of GDP has sustained industrial output, and a savings rate of nearly 34% suggests there are ample funds for long-term investments.

“Except to the extent that rising risk perceptions affect foreign investors’ appetite to invest in India, there does not seem to be any other major mechanism by which US subprime difficulties would negatively impact Indian economic prospects," said Saumitra Chaudhuri, a member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Economic Advisory Council.

Foreign money

But Morgan Stanley economist Chetan Ahya says if risk aversion continues for 9-12 months, it may hurt growth.

Ahya said India’s acceleration in growth stemmed from a rise in global risk appetite. This had boosted foreign inflows, which led to lower real interest rates and strong credit-driven growth.

While expecting a soft landing in India’s consumption and capital expenditure cycle, he said if the market turbulence was just the start of a reversal in global risk appetite, it could reduce India’s access to risk capital and push up funding costs.

Not only that, India’s current account deficit made it more reliant on capital inflows than other Asian economies.

Central bank data shows foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows were a record in 2006/07 at $19.5 billion, more than double a year earlier even if it lags China’s FDI rate of some $1 billion a week.

And while the fiscal deficit has fallen as a percentage of GDP, this was due to a rise in tax revenues rather than spending reforms, which meant public finances had little flexibility to increase debt aggressively to offset a sharp slowdown in growth.

“We believe that in the event of a sharp risk aversion in the global financial markets and/or a global hard landing, India’s growth is far more vulnerable than the rest of Asia," Ahya said. REUTERS