By Himank Sharma and Rafael Nam
MUMBAI (Reuters) – Overseas funds chalked up their biggest single-day sales of Indian shares and bonds in 1-1/2 years, fuelling concerns that an emerging market darling is losing its allure over growing anger over a tax on foreign investors.
The net sales of around $630 million on Wednesday, preliminary data showed, is the biggest since foreign investors sold around $877 million on Jan. 27 last year, a time of intense worry over higher U.S. interest rates.
The sell-off comes after weeks of selling by foreign investors, which analysts say mostly stems from uncertainty created by the minimum alternate tax (MAT) being demanded from some overseas funds, although the recent global market volatility has also had an impact.
Intended to ensure companies paid a minimum amount of tax in India, tax authorities have also been imposing MAT on foreign portfolio investors since late last year. Overseas funds in India had paid 15 percent on short-term listed equity gains, 5 percent on gains from bonds and nothing on long-term gains.
The anger over MAT underlines disappointment about what is being seen as the slow pace of reforms by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
“One wouldn’t want it to come to a point where investing in India becomes unviable,” said Hugh Young, Asia managing director for Aberdeen Asset Management <ADN.L> in Singapore.
MAT “will make people think twice, at least investors who don’t know India as well as we do,” he added.
Aberdeen has challenged the MAT claim it has received in Indian courts.
Although India has sent initial notices for MAT tax claims totaling just 6.02 billion Indian rupees ($93.8 million), funds fear authorities will target them more aggressively.
Markets have tumbled ever since foreign funds started to publicly question the tax claims in April. Indian shares and bonds have wiped out their entire gains for the year over the past few weeks, with the broader NSE share index <.NSEI> down 11 percent since hitting a record high on March 4.
That marked a reversal for a market that has surged since 2014 on hopes that the Modi government would spark a wave of economic and fiscal reform, outperforming other emerging markets such as Brazil and South Africa.
Meanwhile, the rupee <INR=D2> on Thursday fell below 63.90 per dollar, its weakest since September 2013 when India was in the midst of its worst currency turmoil since the balance of payments crisis of 1991.
Still, foreign investors who spoke to Reuters added they were unlikely to sell too heavily given India’s economy is still expected to outpace most other emerging markets, while bond yields of nearly 8 percent still make the country a draw.
India suffered heavy foreign sales when the previous Congress-led government sought to tighten rules on funds investing from countries with double taxation treaties in India, but foreign investments came roaring back in subsequent months.
“Investors have started booking profits,” said a Singapore-based fund manager of a large North American asset management company.
“That does not mean that we have given up on India.”
(Additional reporting by Swati Bhat and Abhishek Vishnoi; Editing by Eric Meijer and Jacqueline Wong)