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Resurgent India bulls look to RBI to keep market rally going

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Buyers are emboldened by speculation that the central bank will add to its surprise February rate cut this week.

Mumbai

INDIAN markets have staged an eye-catching comeback in March after taking a drubbing in the first two months of the year, and bulls are salivating at the prospect of more gains.

Foreign investors who shunned rupee bonds and stocks in the wake of border skirmishes with Pakistan have returned as tensions eased, with inflows eclipsing those for closely watched emerging market rival Indonesia. Buyers are also emboldened by speculation that the central bank will add to its surprise February rate cut this week and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to win a second term.

The RBI will lower the benchmark repurchase rate by 25 basis points to 6 per cent on April 4, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey. The central bank's dovish turn in February - when it changed its policy stance to neutral from "calibrated tightening" - spurred the rally in bonds, with investors benefiting from India's relatively high yields. The RBI's open-market debt purchases added to the gains.

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"The long-term case for India is appealing," said Bryan Carter, London-based head of emerging markets debt at BNP Paribas Asset Management Ltd. "India has already fired the first easing shot, so expectation is naturally for more."

The yield on India's most-traded sovereign debt due January 2028 has fallen from this year's high of 7.67 per cent in February to 7.48 per cent on Friday. That on notes maturing in April 2020 slipped 15 basis points in March to 6.42 per cent.

Rupee government and corporate debt lured US$2.4 billion last month through March 27, versus US$1.4 billion for Indonesia. Indian stocks took in US$4.3 billion during the period, contributing to making the equity-sensitive rupee the region's best performer over the past month.

"India benefited because of the shift in RBI's stance and OMO bond purchases as well as the rupee's strength," said Patrick Wacker, fund manager for emerging markets fixed income at UOB Asset Management in Singapore.

Mr Modi's strong response to the border situation with Pakistan appears to have boosted his popularity. At least four opinion polls conducted in March showed the current ruling coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party can either cross or get close to a majority in the 543-seat Indian lower house. Voting will take place in seven phases between April 11 and May 19. Official results will be out on May 23.

"Capital inflows into India have been driven by higher odds that Modi and BJP will be able to form a government, secure a second term after the elections," said Roland Mieth, emerging markets portfolio manager at Pacific Investment Management in Singapore. Indian bonds will continue to attract inflows due to a more dovish Federal Reserve and with the RBI looking to ease policy, he said. BLOOMBERG