India needs hot money as MNCs head for exit: Andy Mukherjee

Reuters Posted online: Thursday, Oct 24, 2013 at 0000 hrs
Singapore : India's deteriorating business climate is forcing the country deeper into a dangerous embrace of hot money. Foreign multinationals which bring in more stable financing are retreating. BHP Billiton is surrendering almost all its energy exploration blocks in the country. Wal-Mart recently ended its joint venture with Bharti Enterprises.

The high-profile departures have their roots in red tape and business-unfriendly policies. BHP lost its nerve over delays in obtaining security clearances. Wal-Mart is upset by rules requiring it to source at least 30 percent of its goods locally. Arcelor Mittal and South Korea's POSCO scrapped separate steel projects in India in July after failing to acquire land.

The cancellations are costly for an economy struggling to revive GDP growth from a 10-year low. They're also the opposite of what Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram was hoping for when he took charge in July 2012. Some of his promised reforms, such as an increase in the overseas investment limit in insurance, are still awaiting the nod from lawmakers. But retail and telecommunications are now more open to foreign participation than a year ago. A new law on land acquisition will bring some sanity to the politically contentious process of converting farmland for industrial use, albeit at a higher cost to companies.

Investors aren't rushing in, though. Foreign direct investment into India in the last twelve months was $25 billion, 29 percent less than in the same period before the 2008 financial crisis. The slowdown creates a worrisome reliance on foreigners' purchases of Indian stocks and bonds. These flows are a fickle friend. The peril of depending on them to finance a large current account deficit was evident in the debilitating rupee crisis that spooked investors this summer.

Multinationals have become more cautious about allocating capital to emerging markets since the 2008 crisis. It doesn't help New Delhi's case that a six-year-old tax dispute with Vodafone - a PR disaster for the government - is still not settled. Meanwhile, federal sleuths have launched criminal proceedings against several Indian businessmen, including tycoon Kumar Mangalam Birla, in a coal-mine allocation scandal. This may damp sentiment further. A heftier push to improve the investment climate is not in sight. Without it, India will remain a hostage to whimsical hot money.

CONTEXT NEWS

- BHP Billiton is surrendering the right to dig for oil and gas in as many as nine blocks in India, the company said on Oct. 21, citing an "inability to carry out exploration operations."

- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. called off its India joint venture with Bharti Enterprises on Oct. 9. The U.S. retailer "will continue to advocate for investment conditions that allow FDI multi-brand retail in India," Asia Chief Executive Scott Price said in a statement.

- South Korea's POSCO said in July it would pull out of a $5.3 billion steel project in India's Karnataka state because of delays in receiving iron ore mining rights and opposition from residents which had held back land acquisition.