NEW DELHI - The Indian Central Bank governor’s decision not to seek a second term in office has raised concerns the country could face a loss in investor confidence and economic volatility. The widely-respected economist, Raghuram Rajan, is credited with making an important contribution to India’s economic turnaround after a choppy phase.
In a signal of uncertainty looming ahead of his departure in September, the rupee fell to a one-month low Monday.
Rajan's departure: not a big surprise
Rajan’s weekend announcement to quit came after weeks of speculation on whether the government will renew his tenure as head of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). In a letter to his staff, Rajan said he had been open to staying on to see through the reforms he had begun, but that “on due reflection and after consultation with the government,” he was returning to his “ultimate home in the realm of ideas.”
Widely feted as one of the world’s best Central Bank governors, the former International Monetary Bank economist helped stabilize India’s currency when the rupee was plunging and inflation was raging. As growth momentum returned, the country regained credibility among international investors, who had turned their back on emerging economies.
India's economy is soaring
While countries like Brazil and Russia continue to face hard times, India is now the world’s fastest-growing major economy.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley sought to calm investors Monday telling a television network “the country's economy is driven by strong fundamental factors.” Praising Rajan's contribution, he expressed confidence his successor will be a “good person.”
Symbol of stability
The head of emerging market economics at JP Morgan, Jahangir Aziz, stressed that Rajan was a symbol of stability for many investors. “They have invested on the fact that India has managed to put together a reasonably strong story of macro-economic stability. Many of them associate that in part to the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan.”
Aziz said investors will watch to see whom the government appoints as Rajan’s successor and would like to see continuity in policies. “The need of the hour is to calm down market nerves,” he says.
There has been widespread speculation that Rajan quit because of what some termed as “discouraging signals” from the government.
There was criticism of Rajan
Rajan was not without his critics, who said his refusal to slash interest rates, and a clean-up of bad loans he was pushing at state-owned banks, were choking private investment. The most vocal attack came from a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Subramaniam Swamy, who raised eyebrows with his comment that Rajan was “mentally not fully Indian” and complained that he had not acted to ease the heavy debt burden of many Indian companies.
Although India’s economy is growing at over 7 percent and has overtaken China as the world’s fastest growing economy, Rajan has repeatedly cautioned that India’s economic recovery still rests on fragile foundations.
Economist Rajiv Kumar at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research said fears about the impact of Rajan’s exit could be overblown and pointed out that stock markets did not tank Monday as many had feared. “It's institutions that matter, and the RBI has known to be a very competent institution with huge inherent strengths,” says Kumar.
Meanwhile, the government ushered in more economic reforms Monday, announcing sweeping changes to rules on foreign direct investment by opening up its defense and civil aviation sectors to complete outside ownership, and loosening some restrictions on the pharmaceutical and retail sectors.