BREAKINGVIEWS - India can't afford a foreign investment collapse

MUMBAI Mon Apr 2, 2012 5:34pm IST

An aerial view of Mumbai city January 30, 2006. REUTERS/Adeel Halim/Files

An aerial view of Mumbai city January 30, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Adeel Halim/Files

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MUMBAI (Reuters Breakingviews) - India is one of the few emerging market economies which runs a trade deficit, equivalent to about 9 percent of GDP. That means it is dependent on foreign capital flows. If the latest tax spat goes beyond sulking and investment actually starts to freeze up, India could face a balance of payments crisis.

The coordinated letter from international trade associations - including America's Business Roundtable and the Confederation of British Industry - was sparked by New Delhi's decision to retrospectively change the laws on capital gains tax. It is as much a rallying cry to investors as it is a message to the India government.

Indian's annual financing requirement of $119 billion is the highest in Asia, according Nomura. Its trade deficit for the fiscal year ending in March 2012 has been estimated at a record $175-180 billion by the Commerce Ministry, up from $104 billion a year ago.

Last year around $63 billion was invested from overseas in the Indian economy. Half came from foreign direct investment (FDI) and the other half from portfolio investors. Another $60 billion came into India through remittances from overseas workers. With the trade deficit rising on the back of higher oil imports, India needs to be increasing foreign inflows not shooing them away.

The government may believe investors will continue to see the returns in India as outweighing the additional tax burden. Even Vodafone (VOD.L), which is bearing the brunt of the retrospective tax legislation, may not exit what is still one of the world's fastest growing markets. But India doesn't need an exodus of capital for a crisis to manifest itself. All that would take is if for new money to dry up. That's why a letter from some of the world's largest trade associations should worry the Indian government. It follows a similar salvo from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which represents institutional investors, last week.

New Delhi may be quite justified in pursuing reform of its investment tax regime to close loopholes. But retrospectively changing tax laws has rightly got foreign investors hot under the collar. The government should remember that there won't be any revenue to tax if investments dry up.

CONTEXT NEWS

- A coordinated group of international trade associations representing more than 250,000 companies from the US, UK, Japan, Canada and Hong Kong have written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh criticising new taxation proposals and warning that investment plans by overseas companies could be reconsidered, Reuters reported on April 2. The letter writers include the Business Roundtable in the United States and the Confederation of British Industry. (To read full story, click here)

- The British Chancellor George Osborne will meet with his counterpart Pranab Mukherjee on April 2 and is expected to lobby against the finance minister's tax proposals, announced in his March 16 budget.

- The retrospective changes to the tax rules could affect Vodafone and well as number of other overseas transactions including Kraft's 2010 acquisition of Cadbury's Indian business and deals involving Indian assets sold by AT&T and SABMiller's purchase of Fosters. Foreign brokerages are also worried about the same provisions which they say are couched in ambiguous language and could be used to target overseas market investors.

- Trade association letter: r.reuters.com/cuq47s

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

(Editing by Hugo Dixon and David Evans)

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