Fund manager Abhay Agarwal is witnessing an unexpected surge in calls from international investors, expressing a keen interest in India’s financial landscape. Agarwal, the founder of Mumbai-based Piper Serica Advisors, noted that these inquiries are coming from family offices in Europe and significant investors in the US who had previously shown little inclination towards investing in India. The nature of their questions reveals a newfound seriousness, as Agarwal explains, “For the first time, I find them to be very serious and they’re calling and asking questions such as, ‘Look, will my money be safe? And is there a rule of law here?'”
This heightened interest coincides with India’s stock market reaching historic highs, with the market value of listed companies surpassing $4 trillion in late November, according to Refinitiv. India boasts two major exchanges: the National Stock Exchange of India (NSE) and the BSE, Asia’s oldest bourse, formerly known as the Bombay Stock Exchange. The NSE has now overtaken Hong Kong to become the seventh-largest bourse globally, based on daily transaction value, as per data from the World Federation of Exchanges.
Abhay Agarwal reflects on the changing dynamics, stating, “People are getting excited about India.” International investors contacting him are eager to understand if India can deliver returns similar to China’s performance in the early 2000s. Notably, Agarwal observes a shift in investor profiles, with long-term strategic and financial investors now taking a 10-year perspective rather than a short-term outlook.
India’s benchmark indices, the Sensex and Nifty 50, have seen robust growth, climbing over 16% and 17%, respectively, this year. Additionally, the country is experiencing a surge in Initial Public Offerings (IPOs), with 150 listings in the first nine months of 2023, outpacing Hong Kong’s 42, as reported by Ernst & Young.
The surge in India’s stock market is indicative of the strength and potential of the world’s fastest-growing major economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects India’s growth at 6.3% this year, with some economists anticipating a closer figure of 7%. The country’s economy expanded by 7.6% in the quarter ending September 30, surpassing estimates by the central bank, prompting Citigroup and Barclays to revise their annual GDP projections for India to 6.7%.
In contrast, China faces challenges, with weak consumer demand and a protracted real estate crisis affecting its markets. China’s Shanghai Composite is down 7% this year, and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index has plummeted nearly 19%. The divergent growth trajectories of India and China are becoming crucial in the battle for emerging market investments.
Goldman Sachs, in a November report, highlights India’s resilience, citing its limited economic linkage to China’s end demand. The report notes, “Moreover, Indian equities exhibit the lowest price sensitivity to slowing China growth in the region.” Domestic institutional and retail investors in India are gaining influence, making the country less sensitive to global economic risks. Nomura echoes this sentiment in a December note, stating that India is “less exposed to (a) global trade slowdown” and could act as a counter-weight to North Asia in case of a slowdown in the West and continued disappointment in China.
India’s appeal extends beyond its economic strength, with companies diversifying their supply chains away from China. Apple, for instance, has significantly expanded its production in India, addressing supply chain challenges experienced in mainland China. A survey by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation identifies India as the “most promising medium-term business destination” for Japanese manufacturers, surpassing China due to its economic slowdown and rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Looking ahead, foreign investors may exhibit caution in the first half of 2024, coinciding with India’s general election expected in April and May. Goldman Sachs notes that election-related uncertainty and the challenging global macro environment could keep foreign flows weak for the next 3-6 months. However, optimism prevails, with expectations that foreign flows will pick up after the election uncertainty fades, especially if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party secures victory, ensuring political stability.
Not all economists share the same level of optimism regarding India’s prospects. Some anticipate a slowdown, expressing concerns about the sustainability of private consumption, which has been strong but partly debt-fueled. Alexandra Hermann of Oxford Economics warns that this year’s spending may have repercussions next year, particularly as the labor market faces challenges. Additionally, critics argue that the current buoyancy of the stock market may not accurately reflect India’s broader economic challenges, such as job creation for its vast working-age population and the need for sustainable and inclusive growth.
Former central bank governor Raghuram Rajan and economist Rohit Lamba, in their recently-released book “Breaking the Mould,” point out that the profitability of large firms is on the rise, while small and informal businesses face difficulties. They caution that the stock market’s performance offers a misleading picture of the broader economy, with high-employment sectors like apparel and leather experiencing contractions in recent years.