The answer to the question will depend on who is answering it! The Finance Minister and a Deputy Governor of RBI brushed the S&P ratings downgrade aside as if it was a fly buzzing around while you were trying to enjoy your breakfast. An irritation at best, but of no particular significance.
Adrian Mowat of JP Morgan had a different view. He didn’t expect that FII or FDI inflows would be affected by much. The GAAR provisions, if applied retrospectively, would cause much greater damage to overseas investor sentiments.
However, those companies that had borrowed large sums of money through the FCCB route during the hey-days of 2006-2007 may be in a spot of bother. Most of their share prices are trading at a small percentage of the soaring heights they reached during the final stages of the previous bull market. Converting the FCCBs to equity at current lower prices may not be an option because the promoters may lose control.
The other option is to repay the amounts borrowed. This is where the problem may lie. Since several companies don’t have the cash to repay their borrowings, they have been trying to negotiate a rollover of their loans with the lenders. The S&P downgrade has put paid to that option.
There is a third option – which the unscrupulous Ruias of Essar group availed. Default on the loans, and buy time while the matter meanders through the courts. A few companies may have no alternative but to default. Those who value their reputation may be forced to sell some of their assets to raise the cash.
Why did S&P downgrade India’s credit rating in the first place? And was the downgrade fair? There should be no doubt in any one’s mind that India’s fiscal and current account deficit situation is in danger of spinning out of control. Faulty policies that placed politics ahead of economics, and inability to introduce tough and unpopular legislation has caused a financial mess and an unmanageable rate of inflation.
So, S&P’s downgrade should not have come as a great surprise. In fact, it may just be the kick on the backside needed to propel the moribund financial reforms process back to life. But was the downgrade fair? Aren’t countries like Spain and Ireland - which have much more precarious debt-to-GDP ratios than India’s - enjoying better credit ratings? Is it because they are ‘developed countries’ while India is still an ‘emerging economy’?
Moody’s came up with a credit rating that was more optimistic than S&P’s. That calmed some of the initial shock that the stock market experienced. But S&P’s downgrade should be treated as a wake-up call by the Finance Minister. Blaming the opposition and coalition partners won’t get us anywhere. It is time for precipitate action. The stock market is awaiting bold policy actions to resume its up trend. It will also help accelerate the government’s disinvestment policy and fill some of the fiscal gap.