The Indian currency, the rupee (INR), is not yet fully convertible. However, there are talks of making it fully convertible and setting up an onshore INR market. There are many advantages and disadvantages associated with rupee convertibility, which have led to a long continuous debate over the last two decades since reforms were first introduced during the early 1990s. Both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank expect that India will overtake China to become the world's fastest-growing major economy this year, with a bigger gap in 2016. But is India ready to move to the fully convertible currency, or do the challenges persist? (For more, see: India Is Eclipsing China's Economy As Brightest BRIC Star.)

We look at the current state of Indian markets within the existing partial rupee convertibility scenario, what this could mean for India and the world and the pros and cons of rupee convertibility.

Currency Convertibility and the State of Indian Currency

Convertibility is the ease with which a country's currency can be converted into gold or another currency. It indicates the extent to which the regulations allow inflow and outflow of capital to and from the country.

Until the early 1990s (pre-reform period), anyone willing to transact in a foreign currency would need permission from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), regardless of the purpose. People wanting to engage in foreign travel, foreign studies, the purchase of imported goods or to get cash for foreign currencies received (like with exports) were all required to go through RBI. All such forex exchanges occurred at pre-determined forex rates finalized by the RBI.

After liberal economic reforms were introduced in 1991, many significant developments occurred that impacted the way forex transactions and businesses were conducted. Exporters and importers were allowed to exchange foreign currencies for the trade of unbanned goods and services, there was easy access to forex for studying or travel abroad and a relaxation on foreign business and investments with minimal (or no) restrictions depending on the industry sectors.

However, Indians still require regulatory approvals if they want to invest an amount above a pre-determined threshold level for the purpose of investments or purchasing assets overseas. Similarly, incoming foreign investments in certain sectors (like insurance or retail) are capped at a specific percentage and require regulatory approvals for higher limits.

As of today, the Indian rupee is partly convertible, which means that although there is a lot of freedom to exchange local and foreign currency at market rates, a few important restrictions remain for higher amounts and these still need approvals. The regulators also pitch in from time-to-time to keep the exchange rates within permissible limits, instead of keeping INR as a completely free-floating currency left to the market dynamics. In the case of extreme volatility in rupee exchange rates, the RBI swings into action by purchasing/selling U.S. dollars (kept as foreign reserve) to stabilize the rupee.

Full convertibility will mean the rupee exchange rate would be left to market factors, without any regulatory intervention. There may be no limit on inflow or outflow of capital for various purposes (including investments, remittances or asset purchase/sale). 

Current Account vs. Capital Account Convertibility

Any currency may be current account or capital account convertible or both.

Current account convertibility implies that the Indian rupee can be converted to any foreign currency at existing market rates for trade purposes for any amount. It allows easy financial transactions for the export and import of goods and services. Any individual involved in trade can get foreign currency converted at designated banks or dealers. In essence, current account convertibility remains within the trading realms. In the beginning of reforms, the rupee was made partially convertible for goods, services and merchandise only. During mid-1990s, the rupee was made fully convertible for current account for all trading activities, remittances and indivisibles.

However, the rupee continues to remain capital account non-convertible.

Capital account convertibility allows freedom to convert local financial assets into foreign financial assets and vice-versa. It includes easy and unrestricted flow of capital for all purposes which may include free movement of investment capital, dividend payments, interest payments, foreign direct investments in domestic projects and businesses, trading of overseas equities by local citizens and domestic equities by foreigners, foreign remittances and the sale/purchase of immovable property globally. As of today, one can still bring in foreign capital or take out local money for these purposes, but there are ceilings imposed by the government that need approvals.

Advantages 

  • Sign of stable and mature markets: Regulators like to keep control on their territories. Free and open entry to an enormous number of global market participants would increase the risk of losing regulatory control due to large market size and huge flow of capital. Opening up to fully convertible currency is a solid sign that a country and its markets are stable and mature enough to handle free and unrestricted movement of the capital, which attracts investments making the economy better.
  • Increased liquidity in financial markets: Full capital account convertibility opens up the country’s markets to global players, including investors, businesses and trade partners. This allows easy access to capital for different businesses and sectors, positively impacting a nation’s economy.
  • Improved employment and business opportunities: With increased participation from global players, new businesses, strategic partnerships and direct investments flourish. It also helps in creating new employment opportunities across various industry sectors, as well as nurturing entrepreneurship for new businesses.
  • Onshore rupee market development: The growing international interest in the Indian rupee is evident from the development of offshore rupee markets in locations like Dubai, London, New York and Singapore. This can be seen “from the rise in the average daily foreign exchange market turnover from $16 billion in 2005-06 to nearly $55 billion in 2014-15 so far,” according to the Business Standard. However, due to existence of capital controls in local Indian markets, the offshore centers are gaining the trading business. Making the rupee fully convertible will enable these trades to happen in India, helping national markets with improved liquidity, better regulatory purview and reduced dependence and risks from offshore market participants.
  • Easy access to foreign capital: Local businesses can benefit from easy access to foreign loans at comparatively lower costs (low interest rates). Indian companies currently have to take the ADR/GDR route to list in foreign exchanges. After full convertibility, they will be able to directly raise equity capital from overseas markets.
  • Better access to a variety of goods and services: Amid current restrictions, one does not see much variety in India for foreign goods and services. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT) and Tesco stores aren’t that common, although a handful exist in partnership with local retail chains. Full convertibility will open doors for all global players to the Indian market, making it more competitive and better for consumers and the economy alike.
  • Progress in multiple industry sectors: Sectors like insurance, fertilizers, retail, etc. have restrictions on foreign direct investments. Full convertibility will open the doors of many big international players to invest in these sectors, enabling much-needed reforms and bringing variety to the Indian masses.
  • Outward investments: Fancy buying a house on the coast of Florida or buying a million-dollar yacht in London? At present, any Indian individual or business would need permission from authorities to do so. After full convertibility, there will be no limits on the amounts exchanged and no need for approvals.
  • Improved financial system: The Tarapore committee, which was tasked with assessing the full convertibility of the rupee, has noted these benefits after full rupee convertibility, including:
  1. Indian businesses will be able to issue foreign currency-denominated debt to local Indian investors.
  2. Indian businesses will be able to hold foreign currency deposits in local Indian banks for capital requirements.
  3. Indian banks will be able to borrow/lend to foreign banks in foreign currencies.
  4. Easy options to buy/sell gold freely and offer gold-based deposits and loans with higher (or even uncapped) limits.

Disadvantages 

  • High volatility: Amid a lack of suitable regulatory control and rates subject to open markets with large number of global market participants, high levels of volatilitydevaluation or inflation in forex rates may happen, challenging the country’s economy.
  • Foreign debt burden: Businesses can easily raise foreign debt, but they are prone to the risk of high repayments if exchange rates become unfavorable. Imagine an Indian business taking a U.S. dollar loan at a rate of 4%, compared to one available in India at 7%. However, if the U.S. dollar appreciates against Indian rupee, more rupees will be needed to get same number of dollars, making the repayment costly.
  • Affects balance of trade, and exports: A rising unregulated rupee makes Indian exports less competitive in the international markets. Export-oriented economies like India and China prefer to keep their exchanges rates lower to retain the low-cost advantage. Once the regulations on exchange rates go away, India risks losing its competitiveness in the international market. (For more, see: The Reasons Why China Buys U.S. Treasury Bonds.)
  • Lack of fundamentals: Full capital account convertibility has worked well in well-regulated nations that have a robust infrastructure in place. India’s basic challenges—high dependence on exports, burgeoning population, corruption, socio-economic complexities and challenges of bureaucracy—may lead to economic setbacks post-full rupee convertibility.

Is India Ready?

India is expected to become a truly global economy in near future, and it will need a fuller integration into the world economic system. Making the rupee fully convertible is an expected step in that direction.

How soon can India move on this depends on many conditions being met, including low levels of non-performing assets (NPA), fiscal consolidation, optimum levels of forex reserves, control on inflation, manageable current account deficit (CAD), robust infrastructure for regulating financial markets and efficient monitoring of financial organizations and businesses.

The Bottom Line

Despite economic progress being made by India on many fronts, there have been regular challenges at global and local levels, including the global financial crisis of 2008-09, a lack of inflation control and rising NPAs, which have delayed full rupee convertibility. It may take another three-to-five years for India to fully prepare itself for full rupee convertibility. 

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