The wheels are coming off India's economic juggernaut

While the country’s structural weaknesses have been exposed, it is far from alone as rising US bond yields prompt a reassessment of Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 August, 2013, 3:01am

India's growth miracle never looked entirely convincing. Even during the years of rapid expansion the dead hand of the old licence raj weighed heavily on the economy.

The government's deficit was too big, inflation too high, private investment too low, infrastructure too poor and the trade balance too far in the red.

Yet for years India's structural weaknesses were masked by the global glut of cheap capital.

Investors awash with money, thanks largely to the US Federal Reserve's ultra-loose monetary policies, poured capital into India, and growth took off, reaching double-digit rates.

But with the economy now slowing, and markets anticipating a tightening of Fed policy, sentiment has changed. Over the last month India's stock market has fallen 12 per cent, while the rupee has dropped 8 per cent against the US dollar.

Market volatility emphasises how important structural reform will be to India

As a result, even the most ardent enthusiasts have been forced to admit that it looks like the wheels are now coming off the Indian juggernaut.

It's not just India. As the yield on five-year US Treasury notes has doubled over the last three months, international investors have also reassessed their exposure to Southeast Asian markets.

Indonesia has been hardest hit. With a current account deficit running at 3 per cent of gross domestic product and a central bank that's reluctant aggressively to jack up interest rates, foreign investors have been quick to bail out.

The Jakarta stock exchange is down 20 per cent in the last three months, and the rupiah has fallen 10 per cent, crashing through the 10,000 to the US dollar mark.

Now there is a risk of the contagion spreading even further. Thailand's foreign exchange reserves have been bleeding away, and now the baht is falling. And in recent days the Malaysian ringgit has come under pressure too, even though Malaysia boasts a sizeable current account surplus.

Inevitably the abrupt fall in currency values and the rapid spread of contagion around the region have prompted comparisons with the Asian economic crisis of 1997.

Happily, for Southeast Asian countries there is little chance of a similar rout. Their currencies are no longer pegged to the US dollar. Regional banks are better run and less leveraged. Domestic capital markets are stronger, and central banks have more than enough official reserves to cover their near-term foreign-debt obligations.

Yet for India, especially, recent market volatility emphasises how important structural reform will be to secure future growth now that the international liquidity situation is changing.

Unfortunately, reforms will be tough to implement. A weakening currency will push up energy costs, which in turn will exacerbate food price rises.

With a general election due next year, the government has already stepped up food subsidies in a bid to alleviate inflation. But higher subsidies will merely aggravate the government's budget deficit, which is a major cause of the country's high inflation and low private investment rates in the first place.

For India, alas, it looks very much as if the good economic times are over, at least for now.

My thanks to the readers who wrote in to point out that the labels on the charts accompanying yesterday's column had got reversed.

Here are the charts as they should have appeared. The first illustrates that while there has been only a modest slowdown in China's real growth rate, nominal growth - unadjusted for inflation adjustment - has collapsed.

The second shows how China's real lending rate, deflated by economy-wide inflation rate rather than by consumer prices, has climbed sharply over the last two years from negative territory to nearly 6 per cent, indicating a steep rise in real borrowing costs.

I grovel in apology for any confusion the mistake caused.