Rajan and RBI have done their bit, now the ball is in government's court

Dec 3, 2014

- By Vivek Kaul

Vivek Kaul
One of the laws of forecasting is to publicize the forecasts that you get right. On November 17, 2014, I wrote a piece titled Raghuram Rajan won't cut interest rates even in Hindi.

In the Fifth Bi-Monthly Monetary Policy Statement released yesterday (December 2, 2014), Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), kept the repo rate unchanged. Repo rate is the rate at which the RBI lends to banks.

This was along expected lines. Rajan unlike many other central banks believes in clear communication. As Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, from 1988 to 2006, once said "I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I've said." Rajan does not believe in this school of thought and what he writes and says is normally very clear.

And that's true about the latest monetary policy statement as well. He lays out very clearly what the Indian central bank is thinking at this point of time.

Let's look at a few statements that Rajan made in the monetary policy statement. These statements are italicized and what follows is my interpretation of the statements.

"Further softening of international crude prices in October eased price pressures in transport and communication. However, upside pressures persist in respect of prices of clothing and bedding, housing and other miscellaneous services, resulting in non-food non-fuel inflation for October remaining flat at its level in the previous month, and above headline inflation."

What Rajan means here is that overall inflation(i.e. rate of price rise) has been falling. But the prices of a part of the consumer price index which consists of non food and non fuel items haven't been falling as fast as the overall inflation has been. Given this, its not yet time for the RBI to cut the repo rate or the rate at which it lends to banks.

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"Survey-based inflationary expectations have been coming down with the fall in prices of commonly-bought items such as vegetables, but are still in the low double digits. Administered price corrections, as and when they are effected, weaker-than-anticipated agricultural production...could alter the currently benign inflation outlook significantly."

Inflationary expectations (or the expectations that people have of what future inflation is likely to be) have been coming down. This means that people expect the rate of price rise to come down in the days to come. Nevertheless, the inflationary expectations are still on the high side, given that they remain in the low double digits.

Further, agricultural production is likely to fall as well. "It is reasonable to expect some firming up of these prices in view of the monsoon's performance so far and the shortfall estimated for kharif production," the statement read. This could push up inflation in the days to come. The RBI needs to wait and see how these factors pan out, before deciding to cut the repo rate.

"Inflation has been receding steadily and current readings are below the January 2015 target of 8 per cent as well as the January 2016 target of 6 per cent. The inflation reading for November - which will become available by mid-December - is expected to show a further softening. Thereafter, however, the favourable base effect that is driving down headline inflation will likely dissipate and inflation for December (data release in mid January) may well rise above current levels."

A large part of the above statement is self explanatory. The Rajan led RBI expects the rate of inflation to have fallen further for November 2014. Nevertheless, a large part of this fall in inflation is because of the favourable base effect feels the RBI. What this means is that inflation in November 2013 was at a high level. This high inflation in November 2013 will make the inflation in November 2014 look small. (For a detailed explanation of the base effect click here). The RBI expects this base effect to go away after November and inflation to rise. Hence, it wants to wait and watch and see how the situation turns out by early next year.

This statement is also important from the point of view of inflationary expectations. They start to come down only once the people see low inflation being maintained for a while. And if inflation actually has to be controlled, the inflationary expectations need to be controlled first.

"Risks from imported inflation appear to be retreating, given the softening of international commodity prices, especially crude, and reasonable stability in the foreign exchange market. Accordingly, the central forecast for CPI inflation is revised down to 6 per cent for March 2015."

In this statement the Rajan led RBI acknowledges that one of the reasons for the falling inflation is a fall in oil prices. The RBI also says that it largely expects the inflation not to spike from here but is not totally sure about it. And given that they have revised the inflation number for March 2015 to 6%. Earlier it was at 8%. This statement reaffirms the fact that the RBI wants to wait and watch and be sure that the low inflation environment is here to stay. In short, it doesn't want to jump the gun.

"With deposit mobilisation outpacing credit growth and currency demand remaining subdued in relation to past trends, banks are flush with funds, leading a number of banks to reduce deposit rates."

"Some easing of monetary conditions has already taken place. The weighted average call rates as well as long term yields for government and high-quality corporate issuances have moderated substantially since end-August. However, these interest rate impulses have yet to be transmitted by banks into lower lending rates."

In these statements Rajan points out that interest rates on deposits have fallen despite the RBI not reducing the repo rate. He also acknowledges that RBI plays a limited role in influencing interest rates. Further, the overall rate of loan growth for banks has been falling. Given this, the government and big corporates have been able to raise money at lower interest rates since the end of August 2014.

This quip is aimed at the businessmen who have been asking Rajan to cut interest rates. Further, this slowdown in the loan growth for banks has not transmitted into lower interest rates for everybody as yet. The government and the big corporates are the only ones who have benefited from it.

"The Reserve Bank has repeatedly indicated that once the monetary policy stance shifts, subsequent policy actions will be consistent with the changed stance. There is still some uncertainty about the evolution of base effects in inflation, the strength of the on-going disinflationary impulses, the pace of change of the public's inflationary expectations, as well as the success of the government's efforts to hit deficit targets. A change in the monetary policy stance at the current juncture is premature. However, if the current inflation momentum and changes in inflationary expectations continue, and fiscal developments are encouraging, a change in the monetary policy stance is likely early next year, including outside the policy review cycle."

This is the crux of the monetary policy statement. What Rajan is saying here is that the RBI is still not totally convinced about cutting the repo rate. It doesn't feel comfortable in declaring that the battle against inflation has been won.

It feels that if the rate of inflation continues to remain low, the inflationary expectations continue to fall and the government is able to meet its fiscal deficit targets, only then would have the RBI achieved what it set out to, after Rajan took over as the governor in September 2013.

Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. The difference is made up through borrowing. If the government borrows more, it pushes up interest rates because it leaves a lower amount for others to borrow.

Once the RBI sees these three factors under control it will start cutting the repo rate and it will do that at a rapid rate. This, the central bank feels is likely to happen early next year. It has also made it clear that once it is convinced about the need to cut the repo rate it will do that without waiting for the days on which monetary policy is scheduled.

The phrase to mark here is "early next year," which is open ended. Since Rajan has talked about waiting to see if the government is able to maintain its fiscal deficit target, the repo rate cut is likely to happen after the budget is presented in late February.

There are a couple of other points that I would like to make:

  1. It was nice to see Rajan stick to his guns and not fall for the pressure to cut interest rates. This, despite the fact that Arun Jaitley went on an overdrive demanding that the RBI cut interest rates. He even met Rajan on December 1.

  2. Further, Rajan has always maintained that if inflation is controlled economic growth will follow. As he wrote in the 2008 Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms: "The RBI can best serve the cause of growth by focusing on controlling inflation."
He repeated the same statement while talking to reporters yesterday. As he said "There is a major misconception in the industry that the RBI is not concerned about growth. The central bank is concerned about growth and the way to sustainable growth is to have a moderate inflation...RBI wants the strongest growth for India that is possible. We're talking of years of sustainable growth for which you need to fight inflation."

This statement should go a long way in countering those who had been trying to portray RBI's efforts at countering inflation in a negative way and trying to hold it wrong for the low growth environment that prevails in the country these days.

In the end, like good central bank governors often do, Rajan acknowledged that there is only so much that the RBI can do. If economic growth has to be revived the government needs to get its act together. As he said towards the end of the monetary policy statement "A durable revival of investment demand continues to be held back by infrastructural constraints and lack of assured supply of key inputs, in particular coal, power, land and minerals. The success of ongoing government actions in these areas will be key to reviving growth."

The RBI due to its own efforts and with some luck (like oil prices crashing) has brought inflation under some control. Now it's over to the government.

When do you think the Raghuram Rajan led RBI will start to cut interest rates? Post your comments or share your views in the Equitymaster Club.

Vivek Kaul is the Editor of the Diary and The Vivek Kaul Letter. Vivek is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. The latest book in the trilogy Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System was published in March 2015. The books were bestsellers on Amazon. His writing has also appeared in The Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Business World, Business Today, India Today, Business Standard, Forbes India, Deccan Chronicle, The Asian Age, Mutual Fund Insight, Wealth Insight, Swarajya, Bangalore Mirror among others.

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