Depositors are, but poor relatives
The reduction on January 15, 2015, in the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)policy repo rate from 8 per cent to 7.75 per cent, has triggered unprecedented joy in the stock market, industry, analysts and media circles. The popular perception is that the policy relaxation is a panacea for all the ills of the economy.
Anticipating the RBI policy action, a number of banks reduced deposit rates even before the policy announcement. India has a history of banks rapidly lowering bank fixed deposit rates when inflation falls, but being hesitant to raise rates when inflation rises. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows a year-on-year increase of five per cent for November 2014 and advocates of lower interest rates are arguing for a series of rapid policy repo rate reductions.
Medium-term inflation rate
For a meaningful assessment of inflation, it is necessary to consider the medium-term inflation rate. What is relevant is not the latest year-on-year inflation rate but the level of inflation and the increase in inflation in the medium-term. Advocates of lower interest rates argue that with the latest inflation rate of five per cent and allowing for a real rate of interest of say two per cent, the deposit rates for one year and over ought to be reduced to seven per cent. The CPI (base 2010=100) as of October 2014 was 145.2, which would approximate to a compound rate of inflation of 9.8 per cent, which would imply that the present fixed deposit rate of 8.75 per cent for one year would imply a negative real rate of interest.
Hazards of low deposit rates
The household sector accounts for about 73 per cent of gross domestic savings and bank deposits account for 60 per cent of financial savings of the household sector. To raise the real rate of growth of the economy, the present savings rate has to be increased from 30 per cent to 35 per cent of the GDP. Furthermore, if the objective is to increase financial savings, rather than physical savings, it is imperative to avoid adventurist policies of rapidly lowering bank deposit rates. It is precisely for this reason that the RBI has followed a responsible policy of not undertaking reckless reductions in policy interest rates.
Appropriate level for policy interest rates
For a stable and viable regime of interest rates, they cannot be moved around like the price of tomatoes, from Rs 80 per kilo to Rs 20 per kilo and then back to Rs 80 a kilo. Changes in interest rates have wide repercussions in the economy and hence great care is required when the RBI signals interest rate changes. For efficient transmission of the RBI's policy interest rates, the RBI policy rate should be somewhere between the one-year deposit rate of 8.75 per cent and the base lending rate of 10 per cent. As such, to be a lender of last resort, the RBI policy repo rate should be at least nine per cent.
Distortions in short and long interest rates
In a well-functioning financial system, the long-term interest rate should be the average of the future anticipated short rates, adjusted for risk and uncertainty. In India, the inversion of the term structure of interest rates is essentially because of the government's overriding concern that its huge borrowing programme is undertaken at relatively very low rates.
Cartelisation of the savings bank interest rate
Yet another adverse feature from the depositors' viewpoint is the cartelisation of the savings bank deposit rate by major banks. The few private sector banks, which have broken ranks from the cartel, have experienced a reduction in their cost of funds, as the proportion of current and savings accounts (CASA) has risen as these banks offer a rate of interest on savings bank accounts higher than the cartel, which offers only four per cent. A number of banks in the cartel, which have a low CASA would benefit; the possible reason for such banks not opting out of the cartel is the fear of retaliation by the cartel.
RBI's policy responses in ensuing period
Since the RBI has already taken policy action on January 15, 2015, it should resolutely resist the call of seductive sirens to lower the policy repo rate in the policy review on February 3, 2015, as also on Budget Day in the latter part of February 2015.
Paramount position of depositors
The veteran champion of consumer rights, the late M R Pai, would often say that depositors are the real owners of banks, as without depositors, there would be no banks. Responsible policy calls for all economic agents to stop treating depositors as poor relatives in the financial system.
Note: This article was first published in The Freepress Journal on January 26, 2015. Syndicated.
This column, Common Voice is authored by Savak Sohrab Tarapore. Mr. Tarapore, is an economist and he runs his own Multi-Language Syndicated Column. Mr. Tarapore's other column, which appears in The Hindu Business Line, is titled Maverick View.
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