As I write this, one dollar is worth around Rs 67.1. The last time the rupee went so low against the dollar was sometime in late August 2013. Is this a reason to worry?
In August 2013, the oil prices were at a really high level. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil on August 23, 2013, had stood at $109.16 per barrel. As on December 14, 2015, the price of the Indian basket stood at $34.39 per barrel, down by 68.5% since then.
One of the reasons for the fall of the rupee back then was the high oil price. India imports 80% of the oil that it consumes. Oil is bought and sold internationally in dollars. When Indian oil marketing companies buy oil they pay in dollars. This pushes up the demand for dollars and drives down the value of the rupee against the dollar. This happened between May and August 2013, as the price of oil shot up by close to 11%.
"The trouble is that Indian politicians have turned the value of the rupee against the dollar into a prestige issue."
Further, those were the days of high inflation. The consumer price inflation in August 2013 had stood at 9.52%. In order to hedge against this high inflation people had been buying gold. India produces very little gold of its own.
In 2013-2014 (April 2013 to March 2014) India produced 1411 kg of gold. In contrast, the country imported 825 tonnes of gold during 2013. Gold, like oil, is bought and sold internationally in dollars. When Indian importers buy gold, as is the case with oil, it pushes up the demand for dollars and in the process drives down the value of the rupee. This phenomenon also played out in 2013.
Hence, the high price of oil and the demand for gold, drove down the value of the rupee against the dollar, between late May 2013 and late August 2013. But these reasons are not valid anymore. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil is less than $35 per barrel. And the demand for gold is subdued at best.
"When Indian importers buy gold, as is the case with oil, it pushes up the demand for dollars and in the process drives down the value of the rupee."
So what exactly is driving down the value of the rupee against the dollar?
In order to understand this, we need to go back to the period between May 2013 and August 2013. While gold and oil played a part in driving down the value of the rupee against the dollar, there was a third factor at work as well. And this was the major factor.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, which started in September 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust, Western central banks led by the Federal Reserve of the United States, cut their interest rates to close to zero percent. Ben Bernanke, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, was instrumental in this.
The idea was that at low interest rates people will borrow and spend more, and economic growth would return in the process. While that happened, what also happened was that financial institutions borrowed money at low interest rates and invested it in financial markets all over the world.
In May 2013 just a few months before his term as the Chairman of the Fed was coming to an end Bernanke hinted that the “easy money” policy being followed by the Federal Reserve could come to an end. This meant that interest rates would go up in the months to come.
"They had to convert these rupees into dollars. In order to do that they had to sell rupees and buy dollars. When they did that, the demand for the dollar went up."
If the interest rates went up, the financial institutions would have had to pay a higher rate of interest on their borrowings. This would mean that the trade of borrowing at low interest rates in the United States and investing across the world, wouldn’t be as profitable as it was in the past.
This led foreign financial institutions to start selling out of financial markets around the world including India. Between June and August 2013, the foreign institutional investors sold stocks and bonds worth Rs 75,291 crore in the Indian stock market as well as debt market.
"If one dollar is worth Rs 67, then this investment is worth only $9.7 million. In order to prevent such losses, bonds investors are selling out of Indian stocks and bonds."
They were paid in rupees when they sold their investments in stocks as well as bonds. They had to convert these rupees into dollars. In order to do that they had to sell rupees and buy dollars. When they did that, the demand for the dollar went up. In the process the value of the rupee against the dollar crashed. One dollar was worth around Rs 55 in middle of May 2013. By late August it had almost touched Rs 69.
In the end the Federal Reserve did not raise interest rates, the Reserve Bank of India got its act together and the value of the rupee against the dollar stabilised in the range of Rs 58-62 to a dollar.
What did not happen in May 2013 is likely to happen on December 16, 2015 i.e. tomorrow. It is likely that Janet Yellen, the current Chairperson of the Federal Reserve, will raise interest rates. This means that the financial institutions which have borrowed in the United States and have invested across the world, would have to pay a higher rate of interest on their borrowings. This may make their trades unviable.
Also, financial markets do not wait for central banks to make decisions. They try and guess which way the decision will go and make their investment decisions accordingly. It is now widely expected that the Fed will raise interest rates tomorrow. Given that, the foreign financial investors have been selling out of the Indian financial markets since November. Between November and now, the foreign institutional investors have sold stocks and bonds worth Rs 15,035 crore. In the process of converting this money into dollars, the value of the rupee has been driven down against the dollar.
In the beginning of November, one dollar was worth around Rs 65, now it is worth more than Rs 67. Also, as the rupee loses value, the foreign institutional investors lose money. Let’s say an investment is worth Rs 65 crore. If one dollar is worth Rs 65, then this investment is worth $10 million. If one dollar is worth Rs 67, then this investment is worth only $9.7 million. In order to prevent such losses, bonds investors are selling out of Indian stocks and bonds. And this is pushing down the value of the rupee. So after a point, the rupee loses value because the rupee loses value.
The trouble is that Indian politicians have turned the value of the rupee against the dollar into a prestige issue. But what is worth remembering here is that we live in a world where things are connected and given that the value of a currency is bound to fluctuate. Sometimes the fluctuation will be higher than usual. But that doesn’t mean that things are going wrong.
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)