Pimco sees Buffett’s India dream cut to junk as vote looms

Little more than two years after Warren Buffett labeled India a “dream market,” the economy is expanding at the slowest pace in a decade and the nation’s debt ratings are at risk of being cut to junk.

In the last three months, ArcelorMittal and Posco scrapped plans for $12 billion of investments, while global funds pulled $12.6 billion from Indian stocks and bonds. The exodus drove the rupee to a record low and caused short-term borrowing costs to soar, sending the government’s two-year bond yield to the biggest premium to the 10-year rate in Bloomberg data going back to 2001. Even Buffett packed up and left, with Berkshire Hathaway Inc. exiting an insurance distribution venture.

Investors see little prospect of India tackling budget and current-account deficits that drove the rupee down 20% in two years as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh boosts food subsidies to woo voters before a May 2014 election. Standard & Poor’s said this month there is more than a one-in-three chance the nation will lose its investment-grade rating within two years, while Pacific Investment Management Co. sees a “large” chance of a cut in as little as 12 months. Last year’s economic growth of 5% compares with an average 7.6% in the previous decade.

“India’s image has been spoiled and I feel the country has more downside,” Raj Kothari, a fixed-income trader in London at Sun Global Investments Ltd., said in an interview on Sept. 13. “We are bearing the brunt of years of wrong fiscal policy. The government almost settled into inaction. I don’t think global investors are willing to bet on India in this scenario.”

New Governor

Raghuram Rajan outlined a plan to give concessional swaps for banks’ foreign-currency deposits when he took charge as the 23rd governor of the Reserve Bank of India on Sept. 4. That, along with the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision this month to continue monetary stimulus that has buoyed emerging-market assets, has helped the rupee pare some losses. Foreign funds have bought a net $2.04 billion worth of Indian shares in September and outflows from debt have slowed to $594.6 million.

The rupee has rallied 5.8% in September, after a 14% slide in the previous three months that was the worst performance among 24 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The S&P BSE Sensex of local shares has climbed 6.8% this month as Rajan’s measures and the Fed’s policy boosted inflows. It fell 5.8% in the June-August period.

India’s smallest companies are trailing its biggest corporations by the most since 2006 in the stock market. The S&P BSE Small-Cap Index, a gauge of 431 companies with a median market value of $91 million, has tumbled 26% this year, compared with a 2.4% advance in the Sensex, where the median value of 30 firms is $16.9 billion, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

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