The key question confronting the economy now is the backwash effect of the American (or global) financial crisis. Central banks in several countries, including India, have moved quickly to improve liquidity, and the finance minister has warned that there could be some impact on credit availability. That implies more expensive credit (even public sector banks are said to be raising money at 11.5 per cent, so that lending rates have to head for 16 per cent and higher -- which, when one thinks about it, is not unreasonable when inflation is running at 12 per cent).
For those looking to raise capital, the alternative of funding through fresh equity is not cheap either, since stock valuations have suffered in the wake of the FII pull-out. In short, capital has suddenly become more expensive than a few months ago and, in many cases, it may not be available at all.
The big risk is a possible repeat of what happened in 1996: Projects that are halfway to completion, or companies that are stuck with cash flow issues on businesses that are yet to reach break even, will run out of cash. If the big casualty then was steel projects (recall Mesco, Usha and all the others), one of the casualties this time could be real estate, where building projects are half-done all over the country and some developers who touted their 'land banks' find now that these may not be bankable.
The only way out of the mess is for builders to drop prices, which had reached unrealistic levels and assumed the characteristics of a property bubble, so as to bring buyers back into the market, but there is not enough evidence of that happening.
The question meanwhile is: Who else is frozen in the sudden glare of the headlights? The answer could be consumers, many of whom are already quite leveraged. More expensive money means that floating rate loans begin to bite even more; even those not caught in such a pincer will decide that purchases of durables and cars are not desperately urgent.
And it is not just the impact of those caught on the margin who must be considered. The drop in real estate and stock prices robs a much larger body of consumers of the wealth effect, which could affect spending on a broader front. In short, the second round effects of the financial crisis will be felt straightaway in the credit-driven activities and sectors, but will spread beyond that in a perhaps slow wave that could take a year or more to die down.
One danger meanwhile is of a dip in the employment market. There is already anecdotal evidence of this in the IT and financial sectors, and reports of quiet downsizing in many other fields as companies cut costs. More than the downsizing itself, which may not involve large numbers, what this implies is a significant drop in new hiring -- and that will change the complexion of the job market.
At the heart of the problem lie questions of liquidity and confidence. What the RBI needs to do, as events unfold, is to neutralise the outflow of FII money by unwinding the market stabilisation securities that it had used to sterilise the inflows when they happened. This will mean drawing down the dollar reserves, but that is the logical thing to do at such a time. If done sensibly, it would prevent a sudden tightening of liquidity, and also not allow the credit market to overshoot by taking interest rates up too high.
Meanwhile, there is an upside to be considered as well. The falling rupee (against the dollar, more than against other currencies) will mean that exporters who felt squeezed by the earlier rise of the currency can breathe easy again, though buyers overseas may now become more scarce. Overheated markets in general (stocks, real estate, employment-among others) will all have an element of sanity restored. And for importers, the oil price fall (and the general fall in commodity prices) will neutralise the impact of the dollar's decline against the rupee.