India to call on millions of NRIs to defend rupee - sources

NEW DELHI Mon Jul 22, 2013 6:41pm IST

Indian Rupee notes are seen in this picture illustration taken in Mumbai June 12, 2013. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash/Files

Indian Rupee notes are seen in this picture illustration taken in Mumbai June 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Vivek Prakash/Files

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The government aims to call on its millions of non-resident citizens to help reverse a record slide in the rupee, dismissing for now the idea of a global sovereign bond, senior government officials said on Monday.

Acknowledging the country faced a dilemma, the officials said India was running out of options and time to revive the currency and fund a record current account deficit but equally it was wary of sending any distress signals to international markets.

Issuing a global bond might send such a signal, so instead policymakers will focus on attracting funds from Indians living abroad, such as by raising deposit rates in India or issuing bonds specifically designed for them - repeating measures carried out in 1998 and 2000 to steady a weak rupee.

The officials said an increase in central bank policy rates and allowing select firms to raise capital overseas were also being considered.

"All have agreed that it is not a time for India to issue sovereign bonds at this stage," one official said, adding that the central bank agreed with that position too.

"We do not have much options. Whatever has to be done, will be done in the next few weeks," the official said. "We have a window of only few weeks," he said.

"The government could ask banks to raise interest rates to attract an additional $15-20 billion," he said.

The news prompted the 10-year benchmark 7.16 percent, 2023 bond yield to jump 8 basis points to 8.08 percent, while the rupee ticked lower on the news that a global bond was not being considered right now.

India has the second-largest diaspora in the world, with a community estimated at more than 25 million, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs says.

Non-resident Indians (NRIs) already hold more than $100 billion in funds in India. Central bank figures show NRIs held $58 billion in dollar deposits as of September 2012, plus local currency deposits worth 3 trillion rupees.

Since the rupee's rapid decline, inflows of money from NRIs have risen, the government official said. The currency traded at around 59.70 per dollar on Monday to be about a percent above its record low of 61.21 hit on July 8.

The rupee has steadied somewhat since the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) took unprecedented steps last week to try to create demand for the currency by aggressively draining cash from money markets and sharply raising short-term interest rates.

Some of the rupee's fall - 12 percent since May - reflects a broader selloff in emerging markets on signs of a winding down of U.S. stimulus.

But there are also specific fears about India's slowing economy, a lack of substantive reforms and its large current account deficit. That is reflected in foreign fund outflows from India's debt and equity markets since late May of $11.5 billion.

"The government must be weighing the pros and cons of various options available to them, which would be most effective in attracting capital," said Upasna Bhardwaj, economist with ING Vysya Bank in Mumbai. Options include the issuing of NRI bonds and encouraging state-run firms to raise foreign debt, she said.

"If attractive yields are provided, any of these options could be successful."

HUGE DIASPORA

Chief Economic Adviser Raghuram Rajan told reporters that the government "has not dropped any options" for stabilising the rupee.

India has taken some steps this year to try to attract foreign investment, such as easing registration rules and increasing ownership limits for long-term investors such as sovereign wealth funds.

Measures from the Securities and Exchage Board of India (SEBI) aimed at curtailing speculative positions against the currency gave it some reprieve, but market participants are bracing for a rise in policy rates or other aggressive measures to attract foreign money.

"We understand that we need funds to finance our current account deficit but we do not want to send any signal of panic outside India," a second government official said.

"The rating agencies are already watching us closely, we have to manage the situation in a subtle manner," he said.

The government's first line of defence therefore would be to woo non-resident Indians, sources said.

NRIs lapped up bonds and deposits issued by India in 1998 and 2000, helping bridge massive gaps in India's funding needs. Now, with a current account deficit at a record 4.8 percent of economic output, the country needs all the funding it can get.

The government sources said India could consider raising the repo rate, the central bank's main policy rate, if the rupee falls towards 61-62 to the dollar, citing recent meetings between the government and the RBI.

The government is also considering allowing select companies such as state-run India Infrastructure Finance Co Ltd or IDFC Ltd (IDFC.NS) to raise up to $4 billion in debt abroad, they said.

The first official said state-owned banks are likely to be asked to raise funds from overseas markets to meet their capital needs.

"Even if 5-7 banks raise $1 billion each, it will help us," he said.

(Additional reporting by Suvashree DeyChoudhury, Rafael Nam, Swati Bhat and Subhadip Sircar in Mumbai; Editing by Neil Fullick)

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