Indian rupee
The rupee has dropped 6% so far this year, and was the only Asian currency not to get a lift against the dollar in the last quarter. Image Credit: Pixabay

Mumbai: The growth shock to India's economy from the coronavirus pandemic will trigger more weakness in the rupee, dragging it toward an unprecedented 80 a dollar level.

That's the view from Venkat Thiagarajan, who recently served as the head of forex at Reliance Industries Ltd., which runs India's largest corporate treasury. The rupee, he argues, has a stronger link with economic growth, and metrics like the current account, balance of payments and global dollar dynamics have a marginal impact in the medium term.

The currency, which hit a record low of 76.9088 in April, closed at 75.72 Wednesday.

Thiagarajan's bearish outlook stands out as there is growing market consensus that the rupee - Asia's worst performer this year - will rebound on the back of strong overseas flows into Indian stocks and a chunky foreign direct investment into Reliance's digital unit. That's as the economy is set for its first annual contraction in more than four decades this year.

"In the context of severe growth contraction that one has never evidenced in the past, the rupee would tend to depreciate in keeping with that historic dynamic," said Thiagarajan, who retired last month from Reliance. "Any flow-based directional trade in either way doesn't end well. The well-anticipated and well-advertised flows won't swing the needle."

His comments carry weight. Thiagarajan has seen Reliance emerge as one of the most prolific issuers and borrowers in the global debt markets during his 17-year stint at the oil-to-telecom giant. Reliance alone accounts for about 10 per cent of India's exports, which explains why traders closely watch its forex flows. Last year, the company is said to have sold bulk of the $5 billion in a forex swap with the central bank.

Global funds have piled $4.5 billion into local stocks this quarter, the highest in the region. A chunk of those flows is owing to a rights offering by Reliance and stake sales in Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd. and Bharti Airtel Ltd. Another $15.2 billion is seen coming in by way of FDI inflows, thanks to a flurry of deals for Ambani's digital unit, Jio Platforms Ltd.

A year of dips

Yet, the portfolio inflows have done little to arrest the decline in the rupee, which is down almost 6 per cent in 2020. It is the only Asian currency to have weakened against the dollar this quarter even as its peers rebounded sharply from the virus-induced selloff seen earlier in the year.

Analysts have been citing the central bank's aggressive mopping up of dollars, which has taken India's foreign exchange reserves past a record $500 billion, as one big reason for the currency's sustained weakness.

"Flows are expected to happen soon and there's been some degree of front running those flows by the speculative segment," said Thiagarajan. "That explains the significantly strong accretion to the reserves."

A weak rupee is what's preferred

With the virus outbreak adding pressure on the financial sector already strained by a shadow-banking crisis, authorities may prefer a weaker currency, said Thiagarajan.

"Growth contraction of such severe proportion has made policy making extremely difficult and in the absence of incremental room in fiscal and monetary policies, exchange rate depreciation is the way of stimulating the economy," he said.

Ratings downgraded

Fitch Ratings Ltd. last week cut India's outlook to negative, citing weak economic growth prospects and rising public debt, moving the nation's credit score a step closer to junk. Moody's Investors Service downgraded India's rating to the lowest investment score earlier in the month.

Debt levels in the economy are high and as private sector struggles to service the debt amid the sharp slowdown, the banking sector remains under stress, said Thiagarajan.

"A stronger currency might not be tenable in an economy with a weaker financial sector," he said.