Indian exports set new record as deficit dips to $2 billion

Indian goods export created a new record in December last year, even as strong production numbers from Cairn India’s Rajasthan block reduced the oil bill to its lowest level in a year. As a result, India’s trade deficit narrowed to around $2 billion, the lowest number in several years and a fifth of the $10 billion target.

The performance was led by the goods exports. Exports hit a record $22.5 billion in December last year, comfortably crossing the previous record of $19 billion in July 2008, just before the recession started.

India’s goods exports have shown tremendous buoyancy all through 2010, partly as a result of the efforts of the commerce ministry led by Anand Sharma and secretary Rahul Khullar. Sharma had successfully prodded Indian exporters to export to alternative destinations like South America and Africa, when the traditional destinations of Indian goods were ravaged by the recession in late 2008 and 2009.

In fact, the strong numbers have comfortably surpassed the government’s export target. After clocking in around $175 billion in exports in the year-ended March 2010, the government had set a modest target of achieving $200 billion for the year-ending March 2011. However, thanks to the strong numbers, exports are well clear of the $210 figure for the calendar year 2010, indicating that the financial year number could be closer to around $220-$230 billion, or double the growth target of 15%.

Export growth has primarily been led by sectors such as engineering goods — which, at one point, was almost doubling year-on-year, petroleum and refinery items and cotton yarn. India exports around a third of the petroleum products that it refines, primarily due to an excess of refining capacity. As the crude price goes up — as it has done steadily in the last one year — the value of the exported petroleum products goes up as well, though they still comprise a small percent of the overall goods exports.

In another intriguing turn of the tale, strong production from Cairn India’s Rajasthan block from July last year has brought down India’s oil bill considerably.

India’s expenditure on imported crude — which feeds around 75% of India’s refineries — had hit an all-time high of $12.7 billion in July 2008 — the same month when monthly exports set the previous record.

As international oil prices crashed after the recession, the oil import bill also nose-dived to just $3.6 billion in April 2009. However, in line with rising crude oil prices, India’s oil import bill increased to $7.1 billion by January 2010 and $8.8 billion in May 2010.

Despite steadily rising crude prices, it suprisingly dropped off in November last year, partly as a result of the massive Rajasthan production kick-off. Cairn is estimated to be producing around a quarter of India’s total crude output and around 10-15% of India’s domestic consumption [excluding exports.]

“We also shut down our two of our refineries during last last year,” an Indian oil official said. The shutdown too would have impacted demand as the combined capacity of the massive plants was in excess of the total production from the Rajasthan block, he pointed out.

Analysts, however, do not believe that the good times — at least from the perspective of the trade deficit — will last. “The upside surprise [increase] on exports suggests rising demand from developed markets. We do not think that the low trade deficit in December will be sustainable, due to rising oil prices, and the waning of base effects,” warned Tushar Poddar and Vishal Vaibhaw of the Global Investment Research Division of the Goldman Sachs group.