Aim long term for a strong currency

Topics Rupee | Currency | US Dollar

Is a strong currency not desirable for India? There seems to be broad acceptance that a declining rupee is essential for exports. Is this true long term  that it is in India’s interest to have a currency that is consistently losing value? Consider this in the context of our long-term interests.  

As exports become more expensive with a stronger currency, sectors relying on wage-rate arbitrage, such as Information Technology Enabled Services and labour-intensive manufacturing, will suffer reduced margins, or may even become unviable. Such activities ideally need policy support for transition where feasible to more productive alternatives over a reasonable period. These could be for improvements of process and product design, with automation or computer aided processes, as in jewellery, or skills for a different activity. For high-value products, enhanced quality may be needed to deliver perceived value.  

The Indian rupee has depreciated against the US dollar continuously on average from 1980, except for 1992-95 when it traded between Rs 30-33 to the dollar, and 2003-2011 when it was Rs 44-48. This reflects the relative strength of the economies and market sentiments, with the US having been a more productive economy, with lower inflation.

Excluding countries dependent entirely on natural resource endowments, such as oil, or attributes such as being a tax haven, strong currencies reflect strong economies. Examples are the US dollar, euro, British pound, Japanese yen, Swiss franc, Chinese yuan, and Singapore dollar. The relative weakness of economies is likewise reflected in weak and depreciating currencies. High inflation or internal contention and turmoil undermine the strength of an economy, and the currency usually depreciates.

The advantages of a strong and stable currency are that buying power for imports is protected. For India, this is important for containing expenditure for oil and other energy imports, defence procurement, gold, electronics, withdrawals by foreign portfolio investors, external borrowing repayments, imports of raw materials and intermediates used in manufacturing for domestic markets and exports, and for travel. For a given set of items of expenditure, a strong currency gives consumers more disposable income because of reduced costs, and enterprises have higher surpluses from better profit margins.

In the short run, constraints on movement and economic activity during the Covid-19 pandemic led to increasing inflation in food, gold, transport (including higher taxes on petrol, diesel and alcohol), and com­munication.1 Some analysts suggest an overweight food component may overestimate inflation. The problem arises if there is a stock policy response of raising interest rates now, whereas our circumstances require a facilitation of flows, and not restraints. This also applies to the level of contention through all government action, as against focus on the economy and security/defence to get us through these times. We need our government to focus on facilitation, not contention. Contention reduces productivity, as do all impediments and shortcomings in infrastructure.

Higher growth= Stronger currency

Longer term, after recovery, is the declining rupee a foregone conclusion? Yes, if we continue with business as usual. Instead, if we work systematically towards focussed changes for growth through productivity, while dealing with emerging market realities of agricultural shocks and wage-push inflation, this could help build a solid recovery and better long-term prospects. Radical improvement in infrastructure will probably enable breakthroughs in productivity. Equally radical changes in organising human resources, and markets (i.e. second-order infrastructure) could further accelerate growth. However, these require choosing appropriate objectives, disciplined teamwork in design and execution, and no disruptive political developments. If we are successful, we will grow faster and the rupee will strengthen.

Infrastructure and the currency

The rupee will continue to depreciate unless we grow faster. India is lagging so badly even among emerging markets that we have to think of doing things differently (). Impro­ved infrastructure is a way to achieve higher growth. 

Some of our difficulties stem from efforts to contain the pandemic, but the obstacles of poor logistics, power, communications, water and sanitation, have to be surmounted for growth. These services will also enable pursuing higher standards and skills for manufacturing, processes, and emissions. Poor services and standards are major deterrents to transnationals looking to set up in India or to relocate here.2 For pharmaceuticals, the government has announced a policy for bulk drug parks and for domestic manufacturing of import-dependent APIs. While additional steps such as anti-dumping duties and targeted manufacturing incentives may be needed, similar systemic initiatives are required for industries such as chemicals, machinery, automotive components, and electronics. All of them need smooth inward and outward logistics for good results.

Illustration: Binay Sinha
In addition, another serious deterrent for transnationals is the unpredictability of policies, and the hurdles encountered by large international investors in India, for example, Vodafone, Amazon, Walmart, Cairn, major automobile manufacturers, and so on, including in resolving contracts and disputes.

Targetted steps are required on the lines suggested in the previous citation and in the next,3 such as global anchor investors for priority industries, in the way that Suzuki was to automobile manufacturing, with nodal government coordination, not harassed and impeded, but nurtured to ensure success. Such initiatives need to be explored and evaluated, and if feasible implemented for select industries. Exports cannot be successful without imports at low tariffs, because of global value chains. There is also the issue of finance including scale, and finally, purchase orders, especially for manufactured products. Government’s enthusiasm for start-ups is not sustained at the next phase with purchase orders and funding for commercial scale, once start-ups are past venture rounds. This leaves promising manufacturing enterprises floundering, and unable to scale up.

Export capabilities need to be developed and built on scale, adapting policies in other emerging economies such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. While Vietnam has the advantage of proximity to China, its steps to build capacity need study and consideration, as also for Bangladesh. We should aim to build India’s export capabilities over time, to contribute to a strong economy and more stable currency.

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