Last week, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released the Minutes of its Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) Meeting held earlier in June. It made both for interesting and for sad reading. It was interesting because, for the first time, there was one dissent in the meeting. Prof. Ravindra Dholakia dissented. He presented a case for a rate cut for 50 basis points, rather eloquently and cogently. Cannot say the same of others.
Dr. Pami Dua, one has noticed, rather diligently tracks the Economic Cycle Research Institute in the US. One doubts if the U.S. Federal Reserve does that. ECRI’s recession warnings in this cycle have not materialised. In any case, to what extent they matter to India is unclear to me.
The excessive concern of many MPC members with farm loan waivers was disappointing. First, they are being spread over a few years. Second, they are addressing a distress condition and that is not the same as as unprovoked fiscal give-aways. The latter is fiscal expansion. The former is merely about preventing the economy from sliding further into a slowdown and disinflation. Third and more importantly, as long as the States do not exceed their overall budget deficit, loan waivers cannot be incrementally fiscally expansionary. Dr. Ravindra Dholakia had done well to point that out. There are other reasons to object to loan waivers. But, an inflation risk is not one of them. Not this time. The farm loan waiver that UPA 1 government did in December 2007 deserves to be blamed for that and much more.
He also brought out an important point that if the unexpectedly low inflation rate seen in April was enough for RBI to revise its inflation forecast lower, then it should be good enough to cut rates too. One cannot have it both ways.
Also, it is a truism that one can always wait for more data. But, that is not going to solve the problem. In theory, with every passing month, one has more data. There is a trade-off between waiting for certainty and acting. Certainty will always be elusive in macro economics with uncertain lags. Judgement is inevitable. In the previous three months, actual inflation had undershot the central bank’s expectation.
So, a central bank that moved to a neutral stance in February has had enough time to observe the underlying behaviour of inflation and respond by June. It chose to wait again. That is somewhat inexplicable.
The following observation of the Deputy Governor, Viral Acharya was puzzling:
Accommodation in monetary policy during 2015-16 did not get transmitted to the corporate sector, and private investment remained weak then in spite of the monetary stance. The Treasury gains accruing to banks in this time, while not a direct concern for the monetary policy, only masked the true stress of their balance-sheets.
If the rate cut did not get transmitted in the form of loans but enabled bank balance sheets to get better, that is also a legitimate and justifiable reason for an easing of monetary policy. Banks, under pressure to make more provisions out of profits, were reluctant to do so because it would cause their net profits to decline and make the management look bad. But, if they found some extra gains from their bond holdings, wouldn’t that not make them more willing to recognise bad loans?
I wonder if the Deputy Governor has gotten his logic inside out or may be, I do not know something that he does. That is always possible.
In fact, a good friend pointed out a puzzling comment that the Deputy Governor had made in the February MPC Meeting. As per the Minutes,
The balanced budget, by focusing on fiscal stability and expenditure reorientation to rural and housing, seemed to exonerate the Committee from the burden of skewing rates to bridge the output gap and instead allowed the Committee to focus squarely on the inflation-targeting mandate. [Link]
Probably, he meant to say, ‘expansionary budget’. In that case, it does take the load off RBI of trying to orient monetary policy towards stimulating economic activity. A balanced budget does the opposite and, in fact, requires the central bank to offset fiscal prudence by loosening monetary policy.
In any case, for me, the budget for 2017-18 was pedestrian. Neither prudent nor expansionary nor balanced. It was a nothing budget.
Finally, it is somewhat worrying that the MPC did not discuss the uncertainty caused by government policies – for good or bad reasons. Their note-ban exercise, tax claims and pursuits, real estate regulation bill, benami bill, forthcoming Goods and Services Tax have induced uncertainty over and above the impact of stressed balance sheets.
RBI released the 77th round of Quarterly Industrial Outlook Survey on April 6th. Perhaps, the questionnaire was sent out in February or March. It should have included specific questions about higher or lower uncertainty arising out of note-ban and GST. It did not. I think they missed an opportunity.
I am also struck by the fact that it did not occur to any of the MPC members, if one went by the Minutes of the meeting.
In sum, on reading the Minutes of the June MPC meeting, one get the impression that, barring Dr. Dholakia, others seem to be in need of urgent acquaintance with the art of decision-making under uncertainty.