Indian rupee, markets draw cold comfort from relaxed FDI rules

Jul 17 2013, 15:41 IST
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SummaryPrime Minister Manmohan Singh eased FDI rules for several industries, including insurance and telecoms.

India's relaxation of foreign direct investment (FDI), aimed at drawing funds needed to turn around slowing economic growth and support a crumbling rupee, barely lifted markets on Wednesday due to doubts whether long-term inflows would materialise anytime soon.

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh eased FDI rules late on Tuesday for several industries, including insurance and telecoms, although some of the liberalisation measures fell short of expectations or came with caveats.

The long-pending move to increase the foreign direct investment (FDI) cap in insurance from 26 to 49 percent, for example, still needs approval from parliament, where a bill has been stuck for months.

The measures came a day after the central bank mounted a defence of the rupee by tightening liquidity and lifting short-term interest rates, in order to make speculation against the currency more difficult.

Those moves helped to slightly steady a currency that has lost 9 percent against the dollar since the start of May, making it the worst performer among emerging Asian currencies tracked by Reuters.

But they also sent bond yields soaring and raised worries that the increased costs to borrowers will crimp growth already at a decade low of 5 percent.

"FDI easing only makes it easier for foreign investors to put their money in India, but it doesn't change the fundamentals that determines whether it is a good idea to put money in India in the first place," said Nizam Idris, head of fixed income and currency strategy at Macquarie in Singapore.

Worryingly for investors, Singh's weak coalition government has struggled to push through reforms and has limited firepower for further measures as it faces elections by May.

Among the steps announced on Tuesday, the foreign investment cap in telecoms, which stood at 74 percent, was removed. But the measure was not expected to draw fresh entrants as the cut-throat industry is already crowded, and plagued by regulatory uncertainty.

Instead, existing foreign operators such as Vodafone Group Plc, Telenor ASA and Sistema may opt eventually to buy out their local partners.

"I'm not aware that there are any foreign companies who have said that they are hindered because the country doesn't allow 100 percent FDI," said Mahesh Uppal, director at telecoms consulting firm Com First (India).

"I think resolution of regulatory issues would be far more important for any investor, foreign and Indian," he said.

Indian stocks were up about 0.6 percent on Wednesday, but Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular gave

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