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India's falling rupee pushes gas prices to record high

Rising fuel costs may fan consumer prices and force the central bank to add to its two interest rate hikes this year

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India's opposition parties observed a nationwide shutdown earlier this month over soaring fuel prices and a declining currency.

New Delhi

INDIA'S growth monikers - the world's fastest-growing major economy and the fastest-growing oil user - might make for good headlines, but when juxtaposed with the less-flattering description of its currency they pose a problem for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The rupee, Asia's worst-performer so far this year, has fuelled petrol and diesel prices to a record high and fanned public displeasure with general elections less than eight months away. It prompted Mr Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to say on Saturday the government will soon come up with an action plan to rein in fuel prices.

The government has so far resisted the populist trend of cutting fuel prices to avoid forgoing tax revenue and missing budget goals. Record retail fuel costs are adding to Mr Modi's challenge of tackling a hurtling pace of economic growth that's boosting ownership of vehicles and demand for oil at a time when the impending US sanctions on Iran is set to worsen the outlook for crude prices.

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Diesel cost 78.48 rupees a litre in Mumbai as on Tuesday and petrol 89.60 rupees, according to the website of state-run Bharat Petroleum Corp. Both prices are the highest on record.

Rising fuel costs may fan consumer prices and probably force the inflation-targeting central bank to add to its two interest rate increases this year - a decision that can be both unpopular as well as affect growth. Since the government is not reducing the taxes on petrol and diesel, retail inflation may quicken to 4.6 per cent, according to India Ratings and Research Pvt.

"It remains to be seen how long the government can afford to not do anything given two key conflicting events around the corner," said Sri Paravaikkarasu, an analyst at industry consultant FGE in Singapore, referring to the Iran sanctions and the general election. "India is clearly walking on a tightrope now with the double whammy of higher oil prices and falling rupee."

If oil price averages US$75 a barrel in the year to March, the oil import bill will increase by US$30 billion, according to Devendra Kumar Pant, chief economist at India Ratings, the local unit of Fitch Ratings Ltd. The nation saw oil purchases surge nearly two-thirds to US$39 billion in the first four months of the fiscal year that began on April 1, which pushed the current-account deficit to the widest in five years.

The government on Friday announced steps to boost capital inflows and curb the ballooning current-account gap, including through plans to limit non-essential imports, but that wasn't enough to stop the rupee from resuming its slide on Monday as the market saw those measures as inadequate.

While Indian refiners pay for crude oil in US dollars, fuel station prices are also benchmarked to the greenback - exposing these to the risks of foreign exchange fluctuations. The rupee fell 0.1 per cent to 72.5550 per US dollar as of 10:42am on Tuesday. The currency, which has lost about 12 per cent this year, touched a record low of 72.9138 last week.

All this is happening at a time when Mr Modi is preparing to seek re-election, and the developments are making it difficult for him to balance political and economic concerns. The opposition parties observed a nationwide shutdown earlier this month over soaring fuel prices and a declining currency.

"Surging pump prices of diesel and petrol pose political challenges to the government," said Abhishek Kumar, a senior energy analyst at Interfax Energy in London. "Implementation of some subsidy measures cannot be ruled out in the run-up to the elections." BLOOMBERG

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