Monday, November 21, 2022

Forex reserves and RBI intervention

I pinched myself in disbelief when I saw a news item that said the RBI may have BOUGHT $8 bn dollars in the market in the past month. 

So the RBI is causing the dollar to strengthen vis-a-vis the rupee, meaning it wants the rupee to depreciate In the previous months, the RBI had been doing quite the opposite- it had dipped into its forex reserves to SELL dollars in order to contain the depreciation in the rupee. As a result, India's forex reserves fell by about $ 85 bn in the period April-September 2022. 

But that was not entirely because of sale of dollars by RBI. Dollar sales are said to account for about a third of the decline in reserves. The rest of the decline was because of revaluation of reserves. The RBI holds large amounts of bonds in foreign currency, especially US Treasury bonds. These holdings have been falling in value thanks to rising interest rats.

As you know, we've had people howling about RBI's market intervention. Many were worried about the fall in our forex reserves. They said: why intervene? Let the rupee fall. It would be good for exports. 

The RBI Governor gave a fitting response recently. About the fall in reserves, he said that is what the reserves are meant for- for a rainy day. They are not, he said, meant to be a 'showpiece'. As for export growth, I doubt that rupee depreciation will do much to help in the current situation. The export markets are down, so it's unrealistic to expect a big boost to exports. Our major imports, such as oil, as price inelastic, so imports will shoot up with rupee depreciation. Chances are BoP will worsen, not improve, with rupee depreciation. 

That apart, it makes no sense to let the market dictate the exchange rate entirely. It may dictate the direction of the exchange rate but not the magnitude. The RBI is committed to containing rupee volatility. It has an unstated objective, namely, containing the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER) of the rupee within a band of plus or minus 5 per cent. Excess volatility in the exchange rate makes investors jittery. 

Net portfolio investment flow into India  turned hugely positive in August reversing the trend of the previous months. It turned negative in September and October but has turned positive thus far in November. If portfolio investors sense that the rupee is in a free fall, they will head massively for the exit, causing the rupee to plunge. Rupee volatility must always be managed.

I wonder what is going to happen to the forecasts of the forex pundits who saw the exchange rate headed towards Rs 85 to the dollar or even above that. The rupee is now less than Rs 82 having touched Rs 83 on October 19. The trend has reversed in recent weeks. Inflation in the US has begun to respond to earlier rounds of tightening. There is a sense now that the Fed may not have to tighten as much as thought until now.  

Overshooting of exchange rates is a well-established phenomenon. There are periods when the rate goes above or below the equilibrium value before returning to equilibrium. Some of the depreciation we have seen in recent months falls in the category. The necessary correction may be happening, helped by perceptions about future rate moves in the US. As interest rates in the US correct downwards, the value of US Treasuries will rise and with that India's FX reserves.

I wouldn't be surprised if the exchange rate at the end of FY 22-23 is closer to Rs 80 than to Rs 85.( Caveat: I'm assuming no serious escalation in the Ukraine conflict).  I won't be apologetic if I'm proved wrong: the tribe of economists has long claimed a divine right to be wrong in its forecasts. 


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