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India must lift restrictions on foreign investment in rupee denominated debt
The global financial crisis has heightened fears about integration with global financial markets. For a country like India, which should inexorably open up further to global markets, an important task of policymaking is to identify the path of this integration. It lies neither in shutting out foreign capital, nor in recklessly opening up to dollar denominated debt, which has landed many a country in trouble.
A recent Sebi study on foreign investment in government bonds has recommended the removal of quantitative restrictions on foreign holdings of rupee denominated debt and moving towards a framework similar to the one for foreign portfolio investment in equity. In this study, my co-authors and I find that India’s capital controls continue to be guided by concerns about debt and its maturity, rather than its currency denomination. For example, India has placed many restrictions on foreign investment in rupee denominated bonds, even though this is one of the safest areas to open up. This is because the currency risk is borne by the foreigner and there is a foreign appetite for rupee denominated debt. Currently, the restrictions include caps on the total amount of rupee denominated bonds that a foreigner is permitted to hold as well as limits that vary by investor class, maturity and issuer. These have been implemented through a complicated mechanism for allocation and reinvestment. The restrictions fail to meet the objectives of economic policy today and must be removed.
In 1991, India embarked on its integration with the world economy through trade and capital account liberalisation. A key idea behind the early decontrol measures was that debt inflows were dangerous and, therefore, strong restrictions need to be placed on them. Restrictions were imposed to shift the composition of capital entering India towards non-debt-creating inflows and to regulate external commercial borrowings (ECBs), especially short-term debt. As a consequence, while the framework for FDI and portfolio flows is relatively liberal, India has a number of restrictions on debt flows.
Over the past decade, the global thinking on debt flows has changed. The macroeconomic and financial instability in emerging markets following the crises of the late 1990s has led to increased efforts in these countries to develop local currency denominated bond markets as an alternative source of debt financing for the public and corporate sectors.
In the 2000s, emerging economies’ domestic bond markets have grown substantially. The outstanding