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Asia's worst-performing currency may be best bet this year

Investing in Asia's worst-performing currency is all about the interest rate.

[MUMBAI] Investing in Asia's worst-performing currency is all about the interest rate.

While the rupee fell 0.6 per cent versus the dollar this year, flows from stock investors turned positive in March amid slower inflation, an improved current account and budgetary discipline. Including interest, investing in rupees will earn 3.2 per cent from now until Dec 31, according to strategists' forecasts compiled by Bloomberg, the most in emerging Asia.

"The rupee remains a very attractive play over a one-year horizon," said Viraj Patel, a London-based strategist at ING Groep NV, among the most-accurate rupee forecasters in Bloomberg's rankings.

"Lower inflation, a subdued current-account deficit, high growth and carry will all pay dividends in the future as the global economy turns the corner."

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Interest rates below zero in Europe and Japan are attracting investors to a nation that has the second-highest yield among key Asian markets and the fastest growth among major economies.

The rupee's allure has been burnished by central bank Governor Raghuram Rajan's success in replenishing foreign-exchange reserves and taming consumer prices and the trade deficit.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Feb 29 budget sparked a rally in India's rupee, bonds and stocks as the government's resolve to narrow the fiscal deficit to a nine-year low boosted investor sentiment.

Data showing inflation eased to a four-month low in February also increased odds of interest-rate cuts by Mr Rajan, while demand for emerging-market assets has picked up amid global central bank stimulus.

Ten-year bonds in India pay 7.51 per cent even after the yield has slumped 27 basis points from Feb 26, the last trading day before the budget. Similar-maturity notes offer 7.76 per cent in Indonesia and 2.83 per cent in China.

Foreign holdings of rupee-denominated government and corporate debt rose 44.9 billion rupees (S$917.23 million) in the last two weeks, the most for such a period since October.

"We are in a very-low interest rate world," said Vishnu Varathan, a Singapore-based economist at Mizuho Bank Ltd.

"India's superior growth versus rest of the region alongside the central bank's commitment to inflation stability means that on a risk-adjusted basis, the carry proposition of the rupee will look quite alluring."

The rupee has surged 2.8 per cent in March to head for its biggest monthly advance in two years.

The jump follows a 3.3 per cent decline in the first two months of 2016, during which it fell to the brink of its record low of 68.845 a dollar seen in August 2013.

The rebound provided the RBI an opportunity to accumulate foreign-exchange reserves, which reached a record US$355.95 billion in the week through March 18.

Mizuho forecasts the rupee to end 2016 at 64.50 a dollar, a level that is 3.2 per cent stronger than the currency's close of 66.54 in Mumbai on Tuesday. ING has an year-end projection of 66.

These predictions are at odds with Barclays Plc and Morgan Stanley, which say a strengthening dollar and weak global risk appetite will bring more pain for the Indian currency, with Morgan Stanley estimating a drop to 73 by Dec. 31.

India has eclipsed China as the world's fastest-growing major economy with gross domestic product projected to expand 7.6 per cent in the fiscal year through March.

The slump in Brent crude prices has benefited the net oil importer, with the trade deficit for Asia's third-largest economy shrinking in February to the smallest since September 2013.

The current-account deficit in the three months through December narrowed to US$7.1 billion, from US$8.7 billion in the previous quarter.

The Federal Reserve's decision this month to scale back expectations for the path of interest-rate increases came as a shot in the arm for developing-nation assets.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen on Tuesday reasserted the central bank's gradual approach to raising borrowing costs, prompting gains in shares from Sydney to Seoul on Wednesday.

Global funds have poured a net US$3.1 billion into Indian stocks in March, taking inflows for the year to US$209 million, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Investing in rupees returned 3 per cent, including interest, in the past four quarters, data compiled by Bloomberg show, the highest in Asia. The rupee weakened 4.7 per cent in the period.

"With the Fed now taking the foot off the pedal in terms of rate hikes, high-yield emerging-market currencies will be back in vogue and the rupee will be among those in demand," said Mr Patel of ING.

"Oil prices remain the key. If we start to get a sharp rebound, then both the current account and monetary policy could come under scrutiny."