Actionable insights on equities, fixed-income, macros and personal finance Start 14-Days Free Trial
Actionable investing insights Get Free Trial

Freeing the Rupee: RBI Allows Foreign Trade Settlement in INR


The internationalization of the rupee gets a major kick. We can denominate trade in Indian Rupees (INR) rather than in USD or EUR, with the RBI freeing up rules in our banking system. Even if probably designed to help us trade with Russia, the change has much greater ramifications. Read on.

The RBI has allowed international trade to be settled in INR. In the Indian Rupee. Meaning, if someone in another country wants, it can choose to pay us in INR and take our goods or services (paying for exports). And conversely, we could pay in INR for goods or services we import. This is a game changer.

How will the INR Rupee Based Trade Work?

Currently, when you trade in USD, even with Sri Lanka, the transaction happens in US banks. Why? because USD can only be held in a US bank. Every bank in the world (ok, almost every ) has accounts in US banks, and they just transfer money between each of those accounts when a trade settlement happens.

Think of the same thing in India. Assume that all banks in the world created accounts with Indian banks. Then, when someone wants to transact in rupees, they contact their bank in whichever country they are in, and say, “Take my local currency, convert to rupees, and give rupees to Deepak, through Deepak’s bank”. This allows Deepak to export services or goods and receive money in INR (which is what he has to pay his kids’ school fees with. INR. )

Here’s a specific example. The idea is that a Russian bank can have a “Vostro” account in an Indian bank. (it’s just a bank account with a fancy french name which is thankfully pronounced like it’s spelt. Update: turns out it’s Latin, not French. I should keep my quips to myself.) Since the account is in an Indian bank, the account is denominated in rupees.

Assume an Indian refiner wants to import crude from a Russian company.

  • Indian importer pays say 100 million INR (10 crores, if you’re counting) by telling its bank: listen, pay this Vostro account of Russian bank all this money from my account. It’s for my crude shipment that I’ve received.
  • The Russian bank, on the Russian side, says “Hey, my Indian Vostro has 100 million INR. So if the exchange rate is Rs. 2 INR to an RUB, I will pay 50 million RUB to the Russian exporter of crude”
  • The Russian exporter gets 50 million RUB in his account.

Simple enough? But you’re thinking, wait, how does the Russian bank “give” RUB? It only has INR! You have to understand this: Banks print money. The Russian bank can say I now have 100 million INR in my account in the Indian bank. Against that, I can print 50 million RUB. And give that to the crude oil co.

What can the Russian bank do with the INR? Here’s one thing. Let’s say a Russian medicine chain needs to import medicines from India.

  • It tells it’s bank: Please pay Indian pharma exporter 10 million INR – and take from me 5 million RUB.
  • Russian bank gobbles up the RUB on the Russian side.
  • It then tells the Indian bank, listen, there’s this Pharma dude, just give him 10 million INR from my Vostro account
  • Indian banks says okay, done deal, Spasiba, etc.

Here’s a rough depiction of this process:

The INR Trade Deal

Importantly, all the INR is on the Indian side of things. It sits in Indian banks. There is no currency risk in the Indian bank – it just holds rupee deposits. The Russian bank takes the currency risk – every day, if the RUB-INR exchange rate changes, the profit/loss is borne by the Russian bank.

What if there’s an excess rupee balance?

India imports more than it exports to Russia, so if all trade goes this way, the Russian banks will have an excess INR balance.

Then, the Russian banks can choose one of two things:

  1. Trade with an Indian bank to convert their INR to a different currency (say Chinese Yuan). This will just involve them paying in INR, but receiving CNY in a bank in China where they and the Indian bank has a vostro account.
  2. Or, invest in Indian rupee securities (like government bonds or T-Bills)

Currently, the rules don’t seem to allow (1) above, but that might change very soon.

Is this only for Russia?

No. The rules are broader, but before that: Why was this not possible earlier?

This was a pain because no one liked to deal with the rupee earlier and the RBI didn’t allow such things. They wanted dollars if you traded abroad. Because hell, we should have forex reserves no? But that’s short-sighted, because if we can use the rupee to trade, then we could technically finance our trade deficit using rupees, not dollars (and thus, won’t import inflation through currency depreciation). I say technically because a lot of complicated things happen and life isn’t so simple, but even in the most complex of arguments, it’s better for India to trade using the rupee. Still, that’s a digression.

Everyone was happy with dollars as a currency of trade. Until the Euro came along, and then people would mark trades in Euros. And British pounds. And Yen. These were fine as they were internationally accepted and they all had the ability for foreign banks to open vostro accounts in each country and thus settle trades.

But something changed, very recently. Now consider that most trade happens in EUR and USD. That means every country’s banks have vostro accounts in a European or American bank. Russian banks too, did. And then Russia invaded Ukraine. This ticked off the west.

America froze all payments in USD and kicked Russian banks out of the SWIFT system, which facilitates trade in USD (and other western currencies). This technically meant that if a Russian bank had USD in their vostro account, they couldn’t use it to pay for an import or such, even if it was to pay India! The same thing was done by the EU, so the EUR balances were frozen. Russia was blocked out of trading with US and European companies anyhow, so that was fine. But since the used the USD to trade with other countries like India too, they couldn’t pay or get paid by India in USD. Because the Russian vostro’s in US banks were frozen.

This was a silly move, because it undermined the core basis of world trade, which is “Thou shalt not freeze my vostro account”.

Russia and India need to trade anyhow. Heck, Russia’s still trading with the US and EU, who have carved out exceptions like “okay, we’ll die without Russian gas, so we can allow Gazprombank’s vostro to be operational”. Russia responded with “Hello uncles. Please pay in rubles. You don’t get to keep our money.” Which is currently a massive ego problem but we are only popcorn eaters on the sidelines, for now, so let’s focus on the INR trade thingy.

So Russia can now trade with India in Rupees if they use this arrangement. India will have a similar arrangement with Russian banks in case we ever need to use RUB as the trade currency. Typically, you denominate trade in the currency of the importer, because one country can provide goods, the other has to provide the currency. (Econ theorists: I know it’s more complicated. But please let hair down for one day.) India would do well if we were able to denominate our trade with Russia in INR.

Read more: The opportunity for India in the changing world order.

Who else might want this?

India’s already signed deals with the UAE for rupee based trade (link) but the RBI didn’t have clear rules to support this. Iran too has been looking to export to India using the Rupee. Venezuela has expressed interest.

There will be more if:

  • We allow their vostro banks to trade out the rupee for other international currencies (currently unclear on whether it’s allowed)
  • We allow foreign banks to use the INR in their vostro accounts to trade with OTHER foreign banks (so two countries can trade with each other using INR). This is important because Russia might want to buy from, say, Bangladesh, and Bangladesh might accept the INR as a payment. This allows Russia to have multilateral uses of the INR. (Without this, no currency is useful, honestly)
  • We allow foreign banks to hold short-term government securities, T-Bills etc. The current rules have allowed this only till the end of 2022 or so. That must be allowed indefinitely.

Will this help the INR?

Currently, in the short term, it will allow Indian companies to import from Russia. What should happen is the the INR should truly be a floating currency and tradeable worldwide, for this measure to really take effect.

It will help the INR against the USD because we don’t need so much USD for our imports if Russia, Iran, UAE, Venezuela etc. were to trade with us in INR. That will reduce the pressure on the exchange rate.

Expect, however, that the US will not be happy about this and could counter with their own versions of sanctions. But considering that they haven’t yet done this to China, which continues to trade with Russia, any sanction attempt will be ineffective and counterproductive.

Some major issues still remain:

  • Can foreign banks that have vostro accounts in Indian banks use their balances in INR to trade out of the currency? I.E. sell the Indian bank their INR and take say Chinese Yuan instead (settled in a Chinese bank) This would be a prerequisite to make the rupee international. Currently, there is no specific allowance for it.
  • Can foreign banks trade INR between each other for trade settlements between themselves? Say a trade between companies in Bangladesh and Russia were settled in INR, could one of their banks transfer INR from their Indian vostro to the other party’s vostro in INR? This is how SWIFT currently enables trade anyhow. The current RBI regulation only allows trade with Indian parties, I think.
  • Can a foreign bank invest in short term T-Bills forever? The RBI didn’t allow this till a few days back. They’ve now opened it up only till October 2022. This needs to be permanently allowed.

What it could help, if it succeeds, is to bring more buyers of government bonds and T-Bills. Which can help reduce our interest rates in the longer term. But for that, we need to truly internationalize the rupee. I think it’s a good first step.

Comments? Please ping @deepakshenoy on twitter. As we learn more, we’ll update this post. 


Like our content? Join Capitalmind Premium.

  • Equity, fixed income, macro and personal finance research
  • Model equity and fixed-income portfolios
  • Exclusive apps, tutorials, and member community
Subscribe Now Or start with a free-trial