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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

It is unclear why RBI has hiked interest rates now

Rajeswari Sengupta writes: RBI's surprise move raises questions over its objective. Its mandate is to target inflation, not shore up rupee

Written by Rajeswari Sengupta |
Updated: May 9, 2022 9:08:26 am
So what made the RBI change its mind? Under the inflation-targeting framework, the central bank’s thinking is typically revealed by its inflation forecast. If it projects that inflation will be above target for some time, it implies that the central bank is concerned about rising prices and will be taking action to bring inflation down.

The Reserve Bank of India normally makes policy announcements in line with a well-defined schedule. But on May 4, it unexpectedly tightened monetary policy, increasing its policy interest rate and reducing liquidity in the banking system. Markets were taken aback by the announcement with the 10-year government bond yield jumping by 25 basis points to reach 7.38 per cent. Why did the RBI do this? Even after the governor’s careful explanations, the answers remain unclear.

At one level, the answer is obvious: Inflation pressures are rising. Since the last MPC meeting of April 8, headline CPI (consumer price index) inflation has gone up from 6.1 per cent to 7 per cent, and the forthcoming inflation numbers are expected to be even worse. Clearly, the RBI had to respond. So, it raised the policy repo rate by 40 basis points to 4.4 per cent and increased the cash reserve ratio by 50 basis points to 4.5 per cent.

This explanation, however, does not seem entirely adequate because nothing fundamental has changed since the last policy meeting. Even back then, it was obvious that inflation pressures were rising — the wholesale price index (WPI) was already in double digits, inflation in the US and Europe was increasing, commodity prices were spiking due to the Russia-Ukraine war, and supply chain constraints were tightening as China imposed severe lockdowns to deal with a resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the RBI did not think that these pressures warranted policy tightening.

What made the RBI change its mind? Under the inflation-targeting framework, the central bank’s thinking is typically revealed by its inflation forecast. If it projects that inflation will be above target for some time, it implies that the central bank is concerned about rising prices and will be taking action to bring inflation down. In the last policy review, the RBI projected that inflation would moderate at 5 per cent by the end of the fiscal year, somewhat higher than the 4 per cent objective, but not unduly so, thereby explaining why it saw no need to tighten at that time.

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Presumably, the RBI now thinks that the inflation pressures will either be more intense or more durable than it had earlier expected. And the RBI felt that its policy stance was now “behind the curve”, meaning that urgent action was needed to quell these pressures. Otherwise, it would have waited till the next MPC meeting on June 8 to increase the repo rate. But it is impossible to know whether this was really the motivation as the RBI didn’t release a revised inflation forecast — and because other explanations are also possible.

One possibility relates to the exchange rate. The US Federal Reserve was expected to announce a 50 basis point increase in interest rates later that day. So, it is possible that the RBI wanted to jump ahead of this announcement by announcing its own 40 basis point rate increase, maintaining (more or less) the interest differential against the US dollar and thereby keeping the dollar-rupee exchange rate relatively stable.

It’s not obvious why exchange rate stability would be a priority for the RBI. After all, its legal mandate is to achieve an inflation target, not an exchange rate. But the RBI does seem determined to limit the rupee’s depreciation. The April 8 statement highlighted that India’s foreign exchange reserves had increased to $607 billion at the end of 2021-22. In contrast, the May 4 statement mentioned that India’s foreign exchange reserves now amount to $600 billion — a decline of $7 billion. Clearly, the RBI has been intervening in the foreign exchange market to stem the rupee depreciation. So, it appears plausible that the unexpected increase in the policy rate was done to defend the currency against further depreciation pressures.

There are, then, two potential explanations for the RBI’s sudden move. Both have rationales, but both also have costs. Consider the first possibility that the RBI has now radically revised its inflation forecast (without, of course, releasing the same). Inflation targeting works best if monetary policy is predictable, with interest rate actions being announced on a regular schedule, based on clearly-explained inflation forecasts. On the contrary, sudden moves convey the message that the RBI is getting worried that it is no longer in control of the inflation situation, which is hardly a reassuring signal to send to the markets.

Next, consider the possibility that the RBI wanted to keep the exchange rate stable. The problem is that India is facing an adverse terms of trade shock in the form of rising oil prices, which is putting pressure on the current account deficit. If the RBI allowed the exchange rate to depreciate in response, this would alleviate the current account deficit. Perhaps more importantly, depreciation would help the nascent recovery by ensuring that exports can continue to grow, despite the difficult international circumstances. And there is the additional problem that targeting the exchange rate violates the RBI’s legal mandate.

The RBI now faces a difficult task in the months ahead. At the broadest level, it needs to address the costs of its surprise announcement by reinforcing the credibility of the inflation-targeting framework. Specifically, it will need to focus — and be seen to be doing so — squarely on its inflation target, rather than the exchange rate or any other objectives. And it will need to convince the public that it is actually trying to get inflation under control.

To do this, it will need to continue to tighten policy, but in a gradual, predictable and transparent manner.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 9, 2022, under the title ‘Question of timing’. The writer is associate professor of Economics, IGIDR

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