Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Compelling case for the RBI to cut its policy rate

I argue in the Hindu today that the case for a rate cut is quite compelling. It's not just that CPI inflation is below the RBI target of 4%. The strengthening rupee and strong capital inflows address a concern RBI would have had even a few months ago: lowering the gap between Indian and dollar yields would cause an exodus of funds and destabilise the rupee. We don't have to worry that much about the Fed stance at the moment.

A rate cut will not just boost growth, it will help the bottom lines of banks and that of corporates- it would help address the "twin balance" sheet problem. The problem, as I see it, is that the RBI committed itself to a 4 per cent inflation target when the government gave it a flexible band of 4 plus or minus 2 per cent. Now, that's called being overzealous.

By the way, Surjit  Bhalla flays the MPC today for getting its inflation forecasts hopelessly wrong:

At its first demonetisation meeting on December 7, the MPC concluded that demonetisation was temporary and so, it should look through its effects on dampening inflation and growth. It expected inflation and GDP growth to hustle up in a “V-shaped” pattern. The reality — GDP growth has been flat at 7 per cent, inflation has followed just the first half of the V. The MPC’s post-demonetisation short-term three-month forward forecast for March 2017 was 5 per cent with an upside bias. Actual March 2017 CPI inflation — a low 3.5 per cent! Actual April CPI inflation — 3 per cent. I have searched far and wide but not found any central bank, or even an amateur economist, with such a large forecast error for a three-month projection. These forecast errors are liable to get worse.

He also points out that the RBI has moved deftly from targeting headline inflation to what he calls a "false" measure of inflation:
First, the MPC broadly hinted that it was going against its own mandate of targeting headline inflation and was now considering targeting core inflation. But most brazenly, it chose to emphasise false core inflation as its target, that is, core inflation including petrol. No central bank in the world targets false core; it seems the RBI felt it was appropriate to do so because oil prices were hovering round $55/barrel and domestic petrol prices were inflating at 18 per cent per annum. So false core was sticky at 5 per cent, as the MPC “rightly” concluded. However, no sooner had the MPC penned this excuse that oil prices (internationally and domestically) began to fall. And, along with it, false core inflation. The April CPI data, released just days after the MPC excuses on April 7, now showed even false core hovering around 4.4 per cent, having declined from 5 per cent a month earlier.
True core inflation — CPI minus food minus energy minus petrol — meanwhile continued its downward trend, 5.3 per cent in April 2016; April 2017, it registered 4.2 per cent.

That's a pretty strong indictment. It's necessary to require the MPC to publish its forecasting record- forecast inflation versus actual - every time it meets. There is a fundamental problem with the MPC mandate: the MPC has to explain if inflation exceeds six per cent but not if inflation falls below 4 per cent (unless it dips below 2 per cent which is a remote possibility). Put differently, the MPC is accountable for inflation but not for growth. There has to be a way to address this issue. A good starting point is to publish the MPC's forecasting record.

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