Letting the rupee float

I’m midway through Shankar Acharya’s Op-Ed in today’s Business Standard, and I realize that along with the interest rate, the exchange rate (USD/INR) is another instrument that the RBI could possibly use in order to control money supply and the level of economic activity in India. Let me explain.

Given that mad growth in petroleum prices have been fundamental to growth in inflation, and that high petroleum prices also impact the oil marketing companies and the government negatively, and that we import most of our petroleum needs, letting the rupee rise above its current level is a mechanism of reining in “realized petroleum prices”. If we were to let the rupee rise, inflation would get tamed (due to imports becoming cheaper), the government’s fiscal deficit would come down (subsidy will be reduced), but exporters will get shoved, and that can depress economic activity in the country. So letting the rupee rise is similar to increasing interest rates.

There are people who question whether the RBI should be controlling exchange rates at all, and wonder if it would be better if it were to float freely. I’ve also taken that view on several occasions in the past, but now that I think of it, there are liquidity concerns. USD/INR, EUR/INR, GBP/INR, etc. have no way near the kind of liquidity that exchange rates between two “developed currencies” (USD/EUR or USD/JPY) have. In other words, the amount of trade that happens in USD/INR is much lower than that of say USD/JPY.

Given this lack of liquidity, if let to float fully, there is a danger that the USD/INR rates can fluctuate wildly. Higher volatility in rates means higher hedging costs for both exporters and importers, and given that our foreign trade is fairly high, a wildly fluctuating exchange rate does no good in policy formulation. From this point of view, it is important that short-term volatility in the exchange rates is curbed, and to that extent I support the RBI’s decision to intervene in the FX markets.

However, if there is a sustained pressure on either side  (say the exchange rate trades for a sustained period at the edge of the “band” that the RBI is allowing the rupee to float in), the RBI should buckle and shift their bands, and let the markets have their way. While short-term volatility is not great, distorting market signals is worse.

An analogy that comes to mind is circuit breakers in the Indian stock market. Earlier, these circuit breakers were in place for all stocks (basically, they dictate that if the stock price fluctuates by more than a certain amount in a certain time period, trading in the stock will be halted for a certain amount of time). However, recent regulations have removed these circuit breakers for stocks on which derivatives are traded, which are the more liquid stocks. The circuit breakers, however, are still in place for the less liquid stocks

It’s a similar story in the FX markets. Given that USD/INR is still not too liquid (in terms of volumes), it is important that we have circuit breakers (i.e. RBI intervention). Once it reaches a certain “critical mass” (in terms of volumes ), however, the RBI can step away and let the rupee float.

(I haven’t looked at any data while writing this. All judgments are based on my perception of how certain numbers shape up)

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