Election hope boosts Indian stocks

While most emerging markets continue to struggle, India has gone from strength to strength in recent weeks. The main stock market, the Sensex, is up 6% this year and has hit a new record high above 22,300.

One reason that foreign money has returned to the market is that India “is doing its homework”, says Abheek Bhattacharya in The Wall Street Journal. Investors took fright at the country’s big current account deficit last year, but that has greatly improved now, thanks partly to curbs on gold imports.

Inflation is falling, so the central bank should have room to reduce interest rates soon, making it easier to borrow and spend. GDP growth, currently at 4.7%, is expected to accelerate in the next few quarters. All this has boosted the currency too, with the rupee clawing back around half the ground it lost last year.

But the improving economy is only half the story. National elections will take place this month and next, and investors are hoping for a victory for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The party has a pro-business reputation, and given the slow recent progress on tackling red tape, corruption and on reforming India’s economy, investors have been encouraged by its growing poll lead. The BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi, is admired for clamping down on bureaucracy and overseeing improvements in infrastructure in the state of Gujarat.

Nonetheless, says Shefali Anand in The Wall Street Journal, investors may be raising their hopes too high. Analysts warn that even if the BJP wins, it is still likely to need the support of coalition partners, who may insist on watering down any reforms.

And many of the regulations “most in need of change are set by the state governments, so just having a new face in New Delhi wouldn’t be enough”. The BJP itself is split on one of the key reforms: opening the retail sector to foreign competition.

Still, as Fidelity’s Tom Stevenson concludes in The Sunday Telegraph, it does finally feel as if India “is about to emerge from the shadow of its Asian neighbours”. Our favourite India play, Aberdeen’s New India Investment Trust (LSE: NII), has some margin for error built in: it is on an unusually wide discount to net asset value of 14%.

Merryn

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