Rallying rupee is RBI’s insurance policy for unpredictable times

Mumbai: The rupee’s sharpest rally in almost a year is giving India’s central bank scope to take out an insurance policy for what could be a tumultuous 2017.

A resumption of stock and bond inflows and a budget viewed as fiscally prudent and pro-growth spurred a 1.9% gain against the dollar in the last three weeks, the best performance in Asia. The Reserve Bank of India is responding by buying dollars to bolster its foreign-exchange reserves. It added $1.6 billion to its stockpile in the week through 3 February, the most since early September.

One of the world’s fastest growth rates, slowing inflation and a domestic market of 1.3 billion people has made India an attractive hedge against a possible rise in trade protectionism after President Donald Trump’s surprise US election win. Still, the Asian nation wouldn’t be immune to an external shock that causes investors to sour on developing-nation assets.

“These rupee levels provide a great opportunity to buy dollars and build reserves just in case depreciating rupee pressures return,” said Viraj Patel, a foreign-exchange strategist at ING Groep NV in London. “In a year when globalization and free trade will come under intense scrutiny,” India’s focus on tackling domestic problems rather than chasing export-led growth should prove beneficial, he said.

The rupee closed 0.2% weaker at 67.0150 a dollar on Monday. It’s three-week rally was biggest increase over such a period since 11 March 2016.

The RBI is unlikely to tolerate the rupee gaining beyond 66.5 a dollar, said Patel, adding that he expected dollar strength to return with “a vengeance” in the next few weeks. The currency would probably weaken toward 68.5 this quarter and then rebound to settle between 66 and 67, he said.

Alpana Killawala, a Mumbai-based spokeswoman for the RBI, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comments.

India’s foreign-exchange reserves increased 0.4% to $363 billion in the week through 3 February, according to data released Friday. That was the fourth weekly advance in a row, the longest such run since August.

Asymmetrical intervention

Based on the International Monetary Fund’s methodology for calculating reserves adequacy for emerging-market economies, a range of $215 to $325 billion is enough for India, said Khoon Goh, head of Asia research at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. in Singapore.

“India’s level of FX reserves is more than adequate at present,” he said. Although, “you definitely want to rebuild when times are good and you have inflows coming in, and not be afraid to use them when you have extreme volatility on the other side.”

The rupee and Indonesia’s rupiah are ANZ’s favourite emerging Asian currencies due to the countries’ high bond yields and their governments’ commitment to fiscal discipline and reform momentum, said Goh.

Some of the reasons investors are keen on India at the moment include:

India’s strong macroeconomic fundamentals, the rupee’s attractiveness as a carry-trade currency and the fact that the nation’s exports to the US account for only 2% of its GDP, augur well for the exchange rate, said Amit Agrawal, a foreign-exchange strategist at Societe Generale SA in Bengaluru.

“We expect the RBI to continue its asymmetrical intervention policy to manage FX volatility with a preference to buy dollars,” he said. Bloomberg