Balance of Payments Crisis 1991: An Eventful History

The Balance of Payment crisis in 1991 is undoubtedly, one of the most critical events to take place in the history of Indian economy and politics. The valiant effort in managing the crisis by the then incumbent government, steered India onto the path of economic liberalisation and prosperity. 

In hindsight, this watershed event can be viewed as a blessing in disguise for India. The confluence of bureaucracy, academia, institutions worked so well to pull India out of the crisis trench. Simplistically, one can understand that India went into the pitfall of the BoP crisis as it was unable to pay off its debts. But sometimes, it is fascinating to delve into the ‘why’ part of such an even happened. Why did India descend into such a situation? What were the warning signs? Did the policy was adequate enough to prevent the systemic risk, etc?

These were some pertinent questions that led me to delve deeper into the reasons and get a better understanding of it. Let us traverse through the series of the following activities that led to the creation of the crisis.

India had been significantly under pervasive administration control and its economy policy exhibited a strong inward orientation until early 1980s. The first half of 1980 saw a large increase in the central government’s deficit, primarily on account of high expenditure levels especially on agricultural subsidies, defence, and interest payments. On external account, higher imports dominated over exports. The Current Account Deficit (CAD) widened extensively due to higher import bill. The dependence on commercial financing increased significantly. The debt service ratio reached almost 30% (i.e. India had already used 30% of the total borrowed funds) in the late 1980s. The fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP escalated to 9.4% in 1990-91 as against the average of 6.3% in the first half of 1980s. The increase in the money supply contributed to rise in the inflation and exerted pressure on the BoPs. The bulk of the outflow of funds amounted to nearly US$ 1 billion during April-June 1991. During 1988-1990, external commercial borrowings rose. The reliance on non-resident deposits continued with interest rates rising above the international levels. The perception towards external financing to be a stable source of funds resulted to be a whammy.  India faced large external and internal financial imbalances and was vulnerable to external shocks around 1990.

India’s tendency to extensive reliance on external financing and resorting to financing on commercial terms during 1980s resulted in relatively high debt at the end of the decade. The official reserves were drawn from 5 months of imports in the mid-1980s to a little over 2 months of imports at the end of 1989-90. Reserves declined by 71.2% from Aug 1990 to Jan 1991 (US$ 3 billion to US$ 896 million). The gross official reserves stood at US$ 5.8 billion (1.3 months of imports) by March 1991 despite purchase of US$ 1.8 billion from IMF in January 1991. Inflation rose to 12% while CAD widened to 3%. 

The situation exacerbated further due to sudden outbreak of the gulf war, annexation of Kuwait, higher oil prices, loss of workers’ remittances, policy slippage, domestic political unrest, postponement of the general elections followed by the resignation of the government in power in March 1991. The withdrawal of NRI deposits intensified during

1991-92. Exports stagnated largely due to slack in demand in key markets in Eastern Europe and the Middle East industrial nations. India’s sovereign credit rating was seriously downgraded. The burden fell mainly on monetary adjustments and direct import compression measures. 

By the mid-1991, the BoP crisis turned into a crisis of confidence and India’s default on its debt obligations seemed as a certain possibility in June 1991. India’s external liabilities stood at US$ 68.8 billion at end March 1992.

Management of the crisis and its resolve

The crisis presented the policymakers with the opportunity to pursue liberalization. The then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao roped in Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister to undertake economic reforms and embarked upon a historic economic transition of India along with their administration by abolishing License Raj and introducing liberalisation. 

Here are the key highlights of the reforms-

  • Industrial licensing was abolished (except for 18 industries). 80% of the industry was taken out of the clutches of the licensing framework.
  • Reforms in capital market, trade, infrastructure, and financial sector took place.
  • Automatic approval of FDI was done up to 51%. 
  • Public sector units were given more autonomy. Disinvestments in many PSU units were initiated.
  • Investment caps on large industrial houses were removed. MRTP act was revoked to foster capacity expansion and diversification.
  • Exporters were permitted to open Foreign Currency Accounts.
  • Access to foreign technology was liberalized.
  • Import licensing was abolished. 
  • Import duties were sharply reduced.

In October 1990, RBI imposed higher cash margins of 50% on imports, other than capital goods, for those against foreign sources of credit. In 1991, the cash margins increased further to 133% and 200% in March and April respectively. The government imposed surcharges of 25% on prices of petroleum products and also raised customs duties. RBI imposed 25% surcharge on interest on bank credit for imports. The measures undertaken resulted in significant import compression. Though it proved to be counterproductive as it affected exports. 

The Rupee (₹) was devalued by 18% in 2 phases- on July 1st and July 3rd ,1991. The dual exchange rate system was introduced in 1992 to contain the exchange rate volatility. The large outflow of funds was recouped to a large extent by subscription to India Development Bonds (IDBs) aggregating US$ 1.62 billion with bonds having elongated maturities. India received financing from World Bank, ADB and Japan aggregating US$ 1billion. Aid-India consortium committed aid during 1991-92 amounting to US$ 6.7 billion for India. The value of the gold holdings with RBI was at US$ 3.5 billion during 1991-92. The RBI in consultation with the government evaluated the value of the gold reserves to raise foreign exchange resources. The arrangement to utilise gold was done with the intention to be temporary as well as reversible.  As means of raising resources, RBI in 1991 pledged 47 tons of gold with Bank of Japan (BoJ) and Bank of England (BoE) to raise a loan of US$ 405.0 million. United bank of Switzerland (UBS) purchased approximately 20 tons of gold and paid a consideration of US$ 200 million to the government. Finally, the IMF approved credit tranche amounting to US$ 2.2 billion to be availed in instalments over 20 months under the 1991-93 stand by arrangement subject to the conditionality imposed by IMF. 

The successful management of the BoP crisis succinctly shows the vigour of the government under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao that India was in no way to default on its debt obligations. The government was adamant to rebuild the sovereign rating of India and restore the market confidence on the Indian economy. The measures were taken prudently to weed out the crisis gradually. The co-ordinated financial aid received by India from global financial institutions was the result of strategic negotiations and collegial relationship nurtured between Indian administration and the institutions over the period of crisis. The incipient impact of the reforms undertaken was evident as the foreign exchange reserves had climbed to US$ 9.8 billion by the end of 1992-93 and economic growth had recovered to 4.0 percent. The fiscal deficit reduced from 8.4% in 1990-91 to 5% of GDP in 1993-94. In 2003, India successfully repaid its debt that it received from the IMF under the 1991-93 stand by arrangement. Through the end of the decade, India didn’t have to borrow. 

As the times have progressed, India has become a favourable destination for the FPIs, FDIs. The world is converging in India. It currently ranks 5th on the list of the world’s biggest economies. It has gained the precious tag of the” fastest growing economy” among the major economies in the world. So much for an economy that once faced the risk of defaulting on its debt commitment, gaining the title of the  fastest growing economy in 2018-19 is a feat unprecedented and a matter of pride for us fellow Indians.   

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