At some point, stocks in the world’s second-most populous country will become a buy, but for now, diving into India is like trying to catch a falling khanda.
It’s no secret that it’s been a horrific year for investors in emerging markets, especially the cornerstone BRIC bloc of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
But India has become a special kind of hell.
The rupee is setting new record lows against the dollar every day and Indian stocks are tanking. Indeed, the biggest India ETFs — India Earnings Fund (EPI) and S&P India Nifty Fifty (INDY) — are off 29% and 24%, respectively, for the year-to-date.
Growth is slowing markedly, inflation is spiking and the country’s trade balance is dangerously out of whack.
Ordinarily, a weak currency is good (up to a point, anyway) because it makes exports cheaper. The other side of the coin is that it also makes imports more expensive, and in India’s case, those imports — especially subsidized oil — are a killer.
India imports far more than it exports. Its current account deficit, which has historically averaged -1.5% of gross domestic product, is widening rapidly. For the most recent fiscal year, it hit -4.8% of GDP from a prior-year reading of -4.2%. A plunging rupee ensures more pain ahead.
It also has been a drag on growth. The Indian economy needs to expand at a torrential pace to create enough jobs for the roughly 13 million people entering the work force every year — something on the order of the 8% growth it averaged over the last decade. Even 7% would probably be sufficient.
But now the economy is slogging along at a measly 5%. The trend is down, and it doesn’t look good. Have a look at India’s GDP chart, courtesy of Trading Economics below:
High inflation, underwhelming investment, epic corruption and scandals — many of the wounds to India’s economy are self-inflicted. But the rush out of the rupee is also largely attributable to the forces slamming all developing nation markets and currencies: a flight to quality.
U.S. interest rates are rising amid speculation that the Federal Reserve will begin tapering its monthly debt purchases as soon as September. That has cash flowing out of emerging markets back into developed ones, chasing suddenly improved yields.
Speculative bets are also flowing out of commodities amid tapering talk, and as always, there’s an element of performance-chasing in U.S. equities, which hit all-time highs over the summer.
Elsewhere in the world, Europe, having just emerged from recession, is another beneficiary of global fund flows. After all, stocks there are outperforming U.S. equities over the last month.
The era of easy emerging-market investing is over. No longer can U.S. investors allocate to a broad basket or hodgepodge of EM countries. You can’t just buy the BRICs, set it and forget it, and expect anywhere near the outsized risk-adjusted returns of the past 10 years.
As India proves, investors in emerging markets are going to have to take a more granular approach, building an allocation using select countries. Much like the saying “it’s a stock-picker’s market,” well, when it comes to EMs, it’s a country-picker’s market.
India is not one of those countries right now, and with very real fears of a government funding crisis, it won’t be for a long time.
As of this writing, Dan Burrows did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.