By Manjeet Kripalani and Nandini Lakshman
On July 20, a group of Indian businessmen gathered in Mumbai to listen to a presentation entitled "How to Deal with the New, Improved Rupee." Yet for this crowd—mostly smallish exporters of textiles and commodities—the rupee's 10% appreciation against the dollar this year feels more like a punishment than an improvement. Jamal Mecklai, the risk-management consultant giving the talk, explained that the currency's unprecedented show of strength is a sign of India's increasing importance in the global economy. "India has grown up," he said.
And it has done so in a hurry. A key manifestation of globalization has been a rebalancing of the world's currencies, as the dollar has fallen to new lows and the euro has hit all-time highs. Few developments, though, have been as unexpected as the strength of the rupee, which since March seems to have turned from a perennial weakling into a surging up-and-comer.
Blame it on India's red-hot economy. After decades of puttering along at about 3.5% a year, the country is averaging growth of 9% or better annually, powered by a vibrant info-tech services sector and exploding consumer demand. What's more, India is awash in foreign money: $25.2 billion poured in during the fiscal year that ended in March, up 25% from 2005, attracted by deregulation of sectors such as retail and real estate and a roaring stock market.
Although the currency was decoupled from the dollar and made partially free in 1993, the central bank has since operated a "managed float," intervening in the market to smooth out volatility but not to hold down the rupee's value. However, the Reserve Bank of India has been largely overwhelmed by the foreign funds rushing in—money it can't mop up completely without provoking inflation. So it unteathered the rupee. "It was hard to fight the tide," says Chetan Ahya, chief economist for India at Morgan Stanley (MS ).
Indians don't quite know what to make of the rupee's levitating act. Some say it puts the country's hard-won export gains in jeopardy: Exports now make up 13% of gross domestic product, up from 9% a decade ago (although still far from China's 38%). A particular worry is that India could be ceding ground to Asian economies that manage their currencies more actively—notably China, which has refused to float the yuan. "We are losing our competitiveness to China, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore...and the Reserve Bank is allowing the rupee to appreciate?" growls New Delhi economist Surjit Bhalla.
No sector is more exposed to the effects of a strong rupee than the dynamic IT services industry, which brought in about $35 billion in export revenues last year. The top four IT companies—Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys Technologies (INFY ), Wipro (WIT ), and Satyam Computer Services (SAY )—are all complaining that the currency's strength is crimping margins. Profitability across the sector fell by 8% in the most recent quarter. "The rupee pressure is a concern," says Azim H. Premji, chairman of Wipro. "We have to squeeze efficiencies in cost, operations, supply chain, and processes." Still, with margins of 25% to 30%, "the big boys are in a position to take a hit for a while," says Kiran Karnik, president of the powerful Indian software association Nasscom.
The pressure, though, won't let up on the IT players. Wages have risen by more than 15% in the past year, and the effect is amplified by a strong rupee, since most of the companies' sales are in dollars. The strength of the rupee is "an additional reason to convince customers they have to help us," says Ramalinga Raju, chairman of Satyam, which boosted prices by an average of 2% in the first quarter.
India's manufacturers have taken it on the chin, too. "The appreciation was so sudden that we were unprepared, and it has beaten all of us in the short term," says Baba Kalyani, chairman of Bharat Forge, an auto-parts maker that gets 70% of its export revenues from the U.S. The giants, though, are in a much better position to withstand the pain than are low-margin businesses in textiles and apparel. A further rise in the rupee, says Suresh Ramrakhiani, economist at the Cotton Textile Export Promotion Council in Mumbai, could lead to job losses for up to 200,000 people. Really small exporters—spice merchants, producers of brassware, and the like—are hurting the most. And these small and midsize enterprises contribute 60% of India's export earnings, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry in India.
There's one upside to the strength of the rupee: It makes purchases abroad cheaper. India's biggest companies have been on a buying spree lately. In January, Tata Steel took over Corus Group PLC, an Anglo-Dutch company five times it size, for $11.3 billion, the biggest of its 11 foreign acquisitions in the past year. A strong rupee will only serve to make such deals more attractive.
No one knows whether this is a passing trend or a lasting phenomenon. Some say the rupee hasn't found its true level yet and predict that in coming months it will settle at around 38 to the dollar, compared with about 40 today. And many would argue that such discomfort is simply a part of making the transition to a fully convertible currency regime, which India aims to do by 2011. "India used to be a large country with a small economy," says Ajit Ranade, chief economist at Aditya Birla Group, a Mumbai conglomerate with operations in textiles, metals, chemicals, and more. "Now we are a big economy, and we should act like one."
With Steve Hamm in New York