Thursday, May 19, 2016

Rajan controversy generates more heat than light

A fair bit of dust has been kicked up by Subramaniam Swamy's letter to the PM asking that RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan not being given another term in office. However, it's disappointing that much of the analysis focuses on personalities and does not attempt an objective analysis of Rajan's performance. There are three areas in which Rajan needs to be judged: monetary policy, bank regulation and foreign exchange management.

Most of the controversy is over Rajan's handling of monetary policy. The charge against him is that he reduced interest rates too late and too little. But the reluctance to cut interest rates arises from the more fundamental policy of inflation targeting and the particular band - 4 to 6 per cent- to which the RBI has committed itself. This leaves little room for flexibility on interest rates and its inevitably corollary is a certain loss of output in the short-run. Since the finance ministry agreed to this policy, it would not be correct to fault Rajan alone for this policy. I believe there is room to revisit this policy.

On bank regulation, Rajan has moved to open up space for niche players such as payment banks and small banks while also promising on-tap licenses. Foreign banks have been noticeably reluctant to come in through the subsidiary route given the requirement of capital. The cumulative impact of these policies on the competitive situation  will not be significant in the medium term.

In respect of public sector banks, it is the finance ministry that has called the shots even on matters of governance. The overhauling of bank boards and the appointment of new CEOs for banks is yet to happen- and it will happen under the auspices of the Bank Board Bureau on which the RBI will be represented through a Deputy Governor. My own view is that having the RBI Governor head the appointments process would have been a better bet for now if only because the Governor (and I don't mean this particular governor) is more capable of exercising the necessary independence in this matter. Rajan must given due credit for not having bought the line on bank privatisation- I am surprised that his remarks on the need to improve governance in the private sector first have not got the attention these deserved. Rajan has also been circumspect on PSB consolidation- he has indicated that it may not be appropriate to burden PSBs with mergers at a time when they face several other challenges.

Finally, forex management. There is a school that believes that the RBI has helped shore up the rupee unduly and that this has hurt exports. This could be true but there are serious risks to rupee depreciation at a time when emerging markets have faced large outflows of capital. On balance, it appears that erring on a slight over-valuation was worthwhile.

We must also give Rajan due credit for upholding the stature and independence of RBI and for his efforts at communicating with audiences in India and abroad. For Rajan, it must be some consolation that he's not the only central banker under fire at the moment. In the UK, politicians have asked for Bank of England governor ( a Canadian by the way) to be sacked for saying that Brexit could have serious short-term implications for the British economy. ECB chief Mario Draghi has been bashed by the German finance minister for his unconventional monetary policies. And Janet Yellen, the Fed chief, would not have been pleased to hear that Donald Trump would replace her if re-elected.

1 comment:

Ashutosh said...

Dear Sir - Some of the things that need to be considered are:
1. NPAs got built under the watchful eyes of the same people at RBI, now acting as saviors
2. Certain policies such as those with regards to exit options of foreign investors have not been laid out and there continues to be significant ambiguity for so many years after the issues having come to light
3. The theme seems to be to over-regulate as can be seen from the high benchmarks required for any new institution as well as the want to regulate upcoming financial sectors