India's forex reserves of nearly $640 billion are the 4th largest in the world despite the fact that it runs trade deficits year after year. Other nations among the top 5 with the biggest US dollar reserves are China ($3.4 trillion), Japan ($1.4 trillion) , Switzerland ($1.1 trillion) and Russia ($623 billion). They have all accomplished this feat by running large trade surpluses for many years.
|History of India's Trade Deficits in billions of US dollars. Source: Trading Economics
So how did India manage to build over $600 billion in US dollar reserves? The top contributor to India's reserves is debt which accounts for 48%. Portfolio equity investments are known as “hot” money or speculative money flows accounted for 23% of India's forex reserves, according to an analysis published by The Hindu BusinessLine.
While India has accumulated the largest forex reserves in its history, its debt to GDP ratio is also nearing an all-time record of 90%, the highest in the South Asia region. India's debt has risen by 17% of its GDP in the last two years, the most of any emerging economy. By contrast, Pakistan's debt to GDP ratio has increased by a mere 1.6% to 87.2% from 2019 to 2020.
|India's Rising Debt. Source: Business Standard
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has projected the Indian government debt, including that of the center and the states, to rise to a record 90.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) during 2021-22 against 89.6% in the previous year. By contrast, the percentage of Pakistan's public debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) including debt from the International Monetary Fund, and external and domestic debt has fallen from 87.6% in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019-20 to 83.5% in FY 2020-21.
While large reserves are a source of comfort in terms of balance of payments and currency stability, it also has significant downsides. The biggest risk is the interest rates on the debt (accounting for 48% of India's US$ reserves) which depend heavily on the US Federal Reserve's monetary policy. Should the Fed decide to raise interest rates to tighten money supply amid inflation concerns, the cost of servicing the US dollar denominated debt will rise.
The second big worry is that the "hot money" accounting for 23% of India's US$ reserves could suddenly decide to leave India for better returns elsewhere. This happened in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. It began in Thailand and then quickly spread to neighboring economies. Initially, it was a currency crisis when Bangkok unpegged the Thai baht from the U.S. dollar that set off a series of currency devaluations and massive flights of capital.
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