USD above 7 CNY

This morning, as I type this, the USDCNY exchange rate is 7.0445. Bloomberg sends out a daily newsletter called ‘Bloomberg Opinion Today’. The remarkable convergence of the views stated therein tells me that reading all of them is a waste of time. For everything that happens, Donald Trump is to be blamed. Period. There are no shades of grey nor nuances. Whether Trump is being shrewd or smart or miscalculating or bumbling from one step to another or that he throws his rivals off-balance, these can be debated ad nauseam. We will not know until a good deal of time has passed. But, to provide no scope for alternative points of view speaks poorly of the platform.

America has labelled China a currency manipulator. Treasury department makes the call and it leads to some punitive actions. It is one of those unilateral measures that America takes, in many areas. Back in the early-2000s and even after 2008, Fed monetary policy stance could have been termed currency manipulation. In any case, China technically does not meet the criteria America has set out for currency manipulation and yet it was tagged. But, the punitive actions that have to follow have no sting because China does not have any US government contracts nor does it receive development funding. See this well-written news-story in Bloomberg.

George Magnus has a piece on it in Bloomberg. It says a lot but says nothing much that is new. The path of yuan from hereon will determine global currency arrangements. Possible. Methinks that the elections next year, the Federal Reserve policies and a possible bitter fight between an incumbent President fighting for re-election and the central bank in America will play a big role in the global confidence on the US dollar.

But, unfortunately for others and fortunately for America, there are many other factors that would play a big role in influencing the trajectory of the continued global role of the US dollar. All those factors underpin dollar’s strength because they undermine the claims of other currencies and countries to dethrone the US dollar.

For example, sample this comment from Magnus’ article:

A major Chinese investment bank recently suggested the industrial sector has lost about 5 million jobs in the last year, almost half of which are attributable to the trade war.  [Link]

Vladimir Putin who is widely hated by the mainstream English media has suddenly become quotable for them because Russia is coming good on its threat to diversify out of US dollar. Mildly interesting news but nothing more, for now.

Trump’s fights with the Federal Reserve on American monetary policy stance are more critical, as far as I am concerned, to the path and fate of the US dollar.

John Authers wrote, after the Federal Reserve Board Open Market Committee Meeting last week in which they cut the Federal Funds rate by 25 basis points, that Trump escalates the stakes in the trade war with China to force the hand of the Federal Reserve. I find the logic weird.

A far more reasonable proposition is that he wants monetary policy to help cushion the shock coming from his long-standing and long-running trade battle with China. He is anxious and he knows that market sentiment would sour as he escalates the fight with China. He wants the Federal Reserve on his side to cushion the impact on market sentiment.

Be that as it may, he is risking a big setback to global comfort with and confidence on the US dollar by haranguing the Chairperson of the Federal Reserve. Fed policy is already a slave to stock market gyrations. Trump’s tweets and angry comments are compounding the blows to the Fed’s already-battered credibility. That is the big threat to the US dollar. Not the path of China’s yuan.

If anything, China’s currency war games are a double-edged sword.

What a time we are living through

Almost back-to-back shootings in the US – in Texas and in Ohio in the weekend prompts the American President to condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. Is it or is it not a tad too late? WSJ article linked in line 1 says that it was the 251st mass-shooting in 2019.

From 2006 to 2016, the number of public mass shootings each year was relatively flat, with about four or a five a year, according to the AP/USA Today/Northeastern University Mass Murder Database. That number has risen in recent years, with seven public mass shootings in 2017 and 10 in 2018.

The Government of India has abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that conferred special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Useful links to read/listen are here, here and here.

On the face of it, the BJP had done what it promised in its election manifestos both in 2014 and in 2019. Many Indians have questioned the special status for the state of Jammu & Kashmir in the past. After all, the decision integrates the state with the rest of India. Of course, the Government of India has also divided the state into two Union Territories.

The fact is that Article 370 begins as follows:

Temporary provisions with respect to the State of Jammu and Kashmir

Also, Article 370 (1) (3) states the following:

(3) Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this article, the President may, by public notification, declare that this article shall cease to be operative or shall be operative only with such exceptions and modifications and from such date as he may specify:
Provided that the recommendation of the Constituent Assembly of the State referred to in clause (2) shall be necessary before the President issues such a notification.[16]

There is no constituent assembly in J&K. The Government of India in the past has substituted it with the words, ‘Legislative Assembly’ and since the Legislative Assembly in J&K has been suspended, the recommendation of the Governor of J&K has been deemed sufficient.

A friend raised the question of whether Article 370 has indeed been abrogated. The Government of India appears to have done it indirectly (?) through amendment to Article 367 of the Constitution of India. But, in the gazette notification published in ‘Economic Times’ should clause 4(c) have come before clause 4(b)? See here.

The Presidential order issued on August 5, 2019 extends the Constitution of India, in its entirety, with all its amendments, to the state of J&K. Thus, it effectively neutralises Article 370. There is no direct reference to Article 370. However, the Presidential order, by superseding the Constitution Order 1954, directly abrogates Article 35A since that Article was inserted as per the Constitution Order of 1954, as per the Wikipedia entry.

It is interesting that the Wikipedia article mentions that the President of India has issued a series of orders since 1950 under clause (1) of Article 370. There have been at least fifty such orders extending the applicability of the Constitution of India to the state of J&K.

But, a few questions will remain for which no clear answer will emerge for a long time: the timing of this decision (why now?), the long-term consequence of this decision in the state of J&K, Pakistani reaction, the impact of incidences of terrorism in the state and in India and the legal admissibility of the decision if someone chooses to challenge it in the Supreme Court.

The Chinese yuan has weakened to over CNY7.00 per US dollar. This is seen as China’s retaliation to the latest round of tariffs levied by the American President. President Trump calls it a major violation.

If China uses the yuan as a lever against the American trade war, two questions arise: will capital not flee China somehow?

Second, has America (acting in concert or not, with the UK?) the Hong Kong lever? See here and here.

In the meantime, late in July, News that Huawei helped build the mobile phone network in North Korea, carried by the Washington Post, was cited by CNN here. A very long article from the Wall Street Journal published in May 2019 on how Huawei grew and the methods it followed is well worth a read.

This Reuters article on the 5G fight also published in May is well worth a read, for how Australia blew the whistle on Huawei. Two points from the article are worth noting:

The United States and its allies were derelict in not developing a 5G supplier, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a speech in London in March. “With the benefit of hindsight it beggars belief that the countries which pioneered wireless technology – the United States, the UK, Germany, Japan and with wifi, Australia have got to the point where none of them are able to present to one of their own telcos a national, or a Five Eyes, champion in 5G,” he said.

What is 5G all about?

5G isn’t only about faster data. The upgrade will see an exponential spike in the number of connections between the billions of devices, from smart fridges to driverless cars, that are expected to run on the 5G network. “It’s not just that there will be more people with multiple devices, but it will be machines talking to machines, devices talking to devices – all enabled by 5G,” said Burgess, the Australian Signals Directorate chief, in his March address.

This configuration of 5G networks means there are many more points of entry for a hostile power or group to conduct cyber warfare against the critical infrastructure of a target nation or community. That threat is magnified if an adversary has supplied equipment in the network, U.S. officials say.

Lastly, Japan and South Korea are bickering more bitterly than they did before.

In short, my article in Mint published on July 26 appears to have been timed well, by sheer coincidence.

Sovereign dollar bonds

Many of you might have noticed that the Indian government announced a plan to borrow in dollars in international capital markets. It will be India’s first foreign currency sovereign borrowing from capital markets.

In one short sentence, it is ill-advised. If you thought that the issue of ‘Masala’ bonds (rupee bonds issued for foreigners to subscribe) were safer, that is wrong too. Happy to elucidate. Have done so here.

I wrote about it in my column on the budget published the day after the budget was presented:

One headline that grabbed attention pertains to the government announcing its intention of issuing sovereign debt in foreign currencies. Apparently, India thought of it in 2013 but did not go ahead as the macro fundamentals were deemed dodgy then. But, probably the best time to borrow would be when the domestic currency is undervalued. The Indian rupee in the second half of 2013 was close to being undervalued. Right now, India’s macro fundamentals are not weak, although big question marks remain over the economy’s growth rate, its sustainability and vulnerability to a global stock market correction. In other words, the risk is tilted towards further weakness of the Indian rupee. In 2013, it was tilted towards its strengthening after a hefty correction.

On the other hand, the timing is opportune in another sense because global central banks are back to considering further crazy monetary easing moves. To that extent, raising foreign currency borrowing now is a case of good timing. Another upside is that the government would not be crowding out domestic savings, which have declined in recent years and show no signs of reviving. That is a good thing. [Link]

The above two paragraphs only focused on the micro issue of timing the bond issuance in foreign currency. But, the argument in favour of issuing foreign currency denominated bonds in terms of it not crowding out domestic borrowers is not entirely correct, I admit, because Dr. Y.V. Reddy had pointed out lucidly as to why it is no help to domestic non-sovereign (private sector borrowers).

The argument is this: if India’s safe current account deficit is 2% of GDP and if Government of India borrows from foreigners (it is part financing of the CAD), then the amount available for other domestic borrowers in foreign currency is going to be reduced by that amount. The ‘ceiling’ is unofficially set by the ‘safe’ current account deficit for the country.

Then, on July 9, I wrote more extensively for MINT on the dangers of the Indian government borrowing in foreign currency. [Link]. It might open the door, together with other measures announced in the budget, for greater financialisation of the economy at a time, when its macro-economic health and performance are brittle.

Besides Dr. Y.V. Reddy’s piece, one of the best comments on this subject came from Sanjaya Baru. It is well worth a read.

In this piece, Shankkar Aiyar suggests alternatives to raising dollar resources through sale of sovereign bonds:

Yes, India must raise additional resources and in dollars to finance the aspiration for high growth. Why not raise dollar resources by listing LIC? Why not aggregate surplus land with government into a land bank and call for bids? Why not transfer government ownership of public sector banks and enterprises into an exchange-traded sovereign fund?

Yuan prospects

Read this in John Authers’ missive:

On the yuan, I found this point from Michael Howell of CrossBorder Capital very interesting:

The China currency is getting traction and could displace the USD in Asia (China’s stated aim). What is not well understood is that China still has an immature financial system which forces it to accumulate USD (from trade which is USD denominated) and manage them centrally via the State. Domestic institutions, unlike in the West, have predominantly Yuan liabilities and so cannot afford to take this forex risk. China initially used forex reserves to buy US Treasuries, but now invests via FDI, e.g. Belt and Road. This external infrastructure programme will help to establish the wider use of the Yuan across Asia and get China off the US dollar hook. Do not underestimate the value of this seigniorage for growth.

He could even back it up with an anecdote:

I attended the LSE launch of George’s book. There I met an ex-Central Bank Governor from Central Asia who shared my scepticism about George’s Yuan point. “I will show you,” she said and pulling out her iPhone she shared a photo of her at a formal signing ceremony for a several billion Yuan swap line with the Chinese Finance Minister. Proof she claimed that this underlying use of the Yuan is already the reality across Asia.  [Link]

Let me now do what my good friend Amol Agrawal of ‘Mostly Economics’ usually does.

H…mmm

Amusing and priceless

This is the amusing stuff:

“Juncker vows to turn euro into reserve currency to rival US dollar”

He must pay close attention at least the topline results of the PEW Survey I had blogged on earlier.

A quick recap:

Underneath Mr. Macron’s pro-European rhetoric, the French people are only closely behind Italy in their distaste for the European project. Politicians do not command much trust. The public is confused and worried on immigration. Distrust of media is rather high as it is the case with financial institutions.

(2) This is priceless stuff:

“Aung San Suu Kyi defends verdict against Reuters journalists”

This underscores the ‘free lunch’ of being a ‘Liberal’ outside the government and how difficult it is to govern as a ‘Liberal’. Indeed, there is an inherent contradiction being in government and being Liberal.

Two years of Patel, the RBI Governor

My friend Gulzar Natarajan drew my attention to an article by Andy Mukherjee and an Edit in MINT on the second anniversary of Dr. Urjit Patel as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. I had read the Mint Edit myself.

Andy’s piece is an interesting one. I do not recall readily if he had been critical of the RBI Governor’s role in demonetisation and in the ‘Reverse Bank of India’ moniker that was slapped on the institution in the initial weeks and months of the demonetisation exercise. My vague recollection is that he was. But, in any case, this amounts to a retraction of such criticisms, if he had made them earlier.

More substantively, the Governor has breathed some credibility into the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) and the Non-Performing Asset (NPA) resolution mechanism. Arguably, he had to take tougher decisions on these than his predecessor. During RR’s period, the NPA problem was beginning to come to light. Very few had a clear idea of either the dimensions or the complexity of the problem. Of course, RR took the bold call to order Asset Quality Reviews (AQR) which allowed both of the above to be revealed. That was very important at that time. Now, Dr. Patel has to navigate the political economy of resolution which is perhaps a stiffer challenge than the political economy of disclosure. May be, I am just splitting hairs, here.

Also, the other challenge that Dr. Patel is facing is the Fed tightening and an ‘election-mode’ government both of which, collectively, bring pressure on the fiscal, current account balances and consequently on the Rupee. Popular commentary on the Rupee weakness is unhelpful to the Governor.  It bleats about the Rupee weakness as though it is a problem in and of itself. It is not. The problem is with the underlying low productivity of the economy – especially in its farm and factory sectors. On top of them, fiscal policy has quietly but steadily slipped at a general government level.

Collectively, the farm loan waivers announced by State governments – BJP and Congress-Ruled – have been more than two and half times the farm loan waiver that the UPA-1 government had announced in 2007-08. The general government fiscal deficit for 2017-18 is 7.0% as per IMF estimates. The two rate increases in June and August announced by the RBI are very important and may prove to be very important and useful in ensuring monetary and exchange rate stability.

As for macroeconomic stability, it is in the hands of the Government and not the RBI. Raghuram Rajan was right to stress its importance going into an election, in his Bloomberg interview at Jackson Hole recently.

In short, yes, the Governor has quietly re-established his personal credibility and that of the institution he heads and that can only be good news for the country.

[Post-script: Tamal Bandyopadhyay adds his two cents worth of tribute to Urjit Patel while Amol Agrawal provides the much-needed alternative perspective]

EM Currency Crises

As the currency crises in Argentina and in Turkey resume, readers should read this paper by BIS, especially Section 5 (pages 24-29). Raghuram Rajan says, in this interview, that Indian rupee weakness is not yet a serious concern. I agree there. BTW, he also notes, somewhat mildly, that globally, leverage and higher asset prices caused the 2008 crisis and that they are both high now. Again, I agree.

Two weeks ago, I had written on the fundamentals behind Indian rupee weakness. They do point to a weaker and not a stronger currency. As long as the weakness is gradual and orderly, that is what the fundamentals dictate. No point in complaining about the mirror for the quality of its reflection. Get the reality right.

It is good to see MINT encouraging a student of economics from the Madras Christian College to write, by publishing his article. It is reasonably well written. The last paragraph stumped me, however. Also, the blurb chosen for the article is not the right one. That contradicts the message of the article as did the last paragraph.

Good story on why Australia banned Huawei from its 5G networks.

Ashok Gulati rightly takes the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices to task for tailoring its recommendations to suit the governing political party’s political priorities.