Why the Indian stock market is on an all-time high

Caution to the wind
Caution to the wind
Image: EPA/Divyakant Solanki
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Indian stocks are on a trip of their own, out of sync with the real economy with every passing day. A five-week rally has extended at a time when GDP growth is slowing down and an earnings revival remains uncertain.

Benchmark indices Nifty and Sensex scaled yet another peak on Jan. 08, borrowing optimism from the rest of Asia that was high on cues from Wall Street. Sensex hit a record 34,382 points and the Indian rupee hit a 32-month high against the American dollar.

This, on the first trading day after government estimates pegged India’s economic growth for financial year 2018 at a four-year low.

The stronger rupee reflects the rise in interest from foreign investors. Overseas investors’ net bet on Indian equities was worth over $7.5 billion in 2017, more than what they did in the previous two years combined.

While foreign investors have been enthusiastic, it’s India’s small investors who are leading the charge on Dalal Street. Domestic mutual funds got a whopping $20 billion in 2017, doubling from a year earlier, primarily due to a rise in systematic investment plans by small investors.

Domestic investments beat their overseas counterparts in 2017, the third year in a row. The sizzling share market has lured the average Indian saver as gold and real estate failed to give exciting returns.

As the new year rolls on, some of the laggards of last year are bouncing back. Four out of the top-five Nifty stocks were from the technology and healthcare spaces.

Indian pharmaceuticals were the top-gaining sector on Monday, despite the fact that a stronger rupee will dent their earnings from the US, the biggest market for most major Indian listed drug-makers. Apparently, the only cause for cheer is a report suggesting that the American drug regulator may finally inspect one of Sun Pharma’s drug-manufacturing plants, ending a two-year impasse.

Pharmaceuticals, one of the worst performing indices of 2017, has risen over 7% in the last one month. The technology index has gained over 5% in the same period.

Real estate stocks were the other big gainers in trade at the start of this week, taking their tally for the last three months to nearly 25%, though the outlook is bleak at best: Home buyers are still hesitant, and the industry has unsold inventory worth nearly $15 billion. It can’t get any worse—and that seems to be the sector’s bet.

As the party hits fever pitch, all eyes will now be on finance minster Arun Jaitley, who will unveil the government’s budget for the next financial year on Feb. 01.

Hopes of increased government spending continued to draw buyers for stocks in the infrastructure space, propping up the likes of L&T, Power Grid, and Tata Steel in trade.

Following a rip-roaring rally in 2017, when benchmark indices gained as much as 35% in dollar terms, experts have been quick to advise caution. With expectations rife for a populist budget, Deutsche Bank, for instance, expects Nifty to hit 11,500 by 2018 end, just an 8% rally hereon.

2017 was a spectacular year for emerging markets, and India was a huge beneficiary of the trend. While it is widely believed that Indian stocks are expensive by their own historical standards, if there is a flush of dollars towards emerging markets, some of it will reach India and keep the party on!