People who follow the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan were expecting him to raise the repo rate by 25 basis points(one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage) in the mid quarter monetary policy review announced on December 18, 2013. Repo rate is the rate at which RBI lends to banks.
But that did not happen. This led one journalist attending the press conference after the policy announcement, to quip “We were expecting a Volcker, we got a Yellen.” To this, governor Rajan replied “Why a Volcker or a Yellen, how about a Rajan?” (As reported in the Business Standard).
Rajan took over as the 23rd governor of the RBI on September 4, 2013. Since then he has often been compared to the former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.
Volcker took over as the chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States in August 1979. This was an era when the United States had double digit inflation.
Interestingly, when Arthur Burns retired as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1978, the inflation was at 9%. Jimmy Carter, the President of the United States, chose G William Miller, a lawyer from Oklahoma, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Miller had no background in economics. As Neil Irwin writes in The Alchemists – Inside the Secret World of Central Bankers “Most significantly, Miller, fearful of a recession, refused to tighten the money supply to fight inflation. By the summer of 1979, with inflation at 10 percent, Carter had had enough. He “promoted” Miller to treasury secretary as a part of the cabinet shake-up, a job with less concrete authority. That left him with a vacancy in the Fed chairmanship.”
Carter picked up Paul Volcker as Miller’s replacement. Volcker at that point of time was the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Volcker had been a civil servant under four American presidents. “In his meeting with the president before the appointment, Volcker told Carter he was inclined to tighten the money supply to fight inflation. That’s what Carter was looking for – but he almost certainly didn’t understand just what he was getting,” writes Irwin.
In the year that Volcker took over consumer prices rose by 13%. The only way out of this high inflation was to raise interest rates and raise them rapidly. The trouble was that Jimmy Carter was fighting for a re-election in November 1980.
As Irwin writes “On an air force jet en route to an International Monetary Fund conference in Belgrade, Volcker explained his plans to Carter’s economic advisers. They didn’t like them one bit. Sure, Carter wanted lower inflation. But higher interest rates affect the economy with a lag of many months. There was barely a year to go until the president would be running for reelection, which meant that just as their boss was asking voters for another term, unemployment would be sky-rocketing due to the new Volcker policy.”
Volcker was not going to sit around doing nothing and came out all guns blazing to kill inflation which by March 1980 had touched a high of 15%. He kept increasing increasing rates, till they had touched 20% by January 1981. This had an impact on inflation and it fell to below 10% in May and June 1981.
The prime lending rate or the rate at which banks lend to their best customers, had been greater than 20% for most of 1981. Increasing interest rates did have a negative impact on economic growth and led to a recession. In 1982, the unemployment rate crossed 10%, the highest it had been since 1940 and nearly 12 million Americans lost their jobs.
During the course of the same year, nearly 66,000 companies filed for bankruptcy, the highest since the Great Depression. And between 1981-83,, the economy lost $570 billion of output. While all this was happening, Jimmy Carter also lost the 1980 presidential elections to Ronald Reagan.
India and Rajan are in a similar situation right now. The consumer price inflation(CPI) for the month of November 2013 was at 11.24%. In comparison the number was at 10.17% in October 2013. At the same time Lok Sabha elections are due next year.
In this scenario will Rajan jack up the repo rate to control inflation? When a central bank raises the interest rate the idea is to make borrowing expensive for everyone. At higher interest rates people are likely to borrow less than they were in the past. Also, people are likely to save more money. This ensures that a lesser amount of money chases goods and services, and that in turn brings inflation down.
At higher interest rates, borrowing becomes expensive for the government as well. This might force the government to cut down on its expenses. When a government cuts down on its expenses, a lower amount of money enters the economy, and that also helps in controlling inflation. But that is just one part of the argument.
One school of thought goes that there is not much the RBI can do about inflation by increasing interest rates. Leading this school is finance minister P Chidambaram. As he said in late November “Consumer inflation in India is entrenched due to high food and fuel prices and monetary policy has little impact in curbing these prices…There are no quick fixes for inflation, will take some time to fix it,” he said.
This logic is borne out to some extent if one looks at the inflation numbers in a little more detail. The food inflation as per wholesale price index(WPI) was at 19.93% in November 2013. Within it, onion prices rose by 190.3% and vegetable prices rose by 95.3%. The food inflation as per the consumer price index(CPI) stood at 14.72% in November 2013. Within food inflation, vegetable prices rose by 61.6% and fruit prices rose by 15%, in comparison to November 2012.
Hence, a large part of inflation is being driven by food inflation. As the RBI said in the Mid-Quarter Monetary Policy Review: December 2013 statement released on December 18, 2013, “Retail inflation measured by the consumer price index (CPI) has risen unrelentingly through the year so far, pushed up by the unseasonal upturn in vegetable price.”
A major reason behind the Rajan led RBI not raising the repo rate was the fact that they expect vegetable prices to fall. “Vegetable prices seem to be adjusting downwards sharply in certain areas,” it said in the monetary policy review statement. Taimur Baig and Kaushik Das of Deutsche Bank Research in a note dated December 18, 2013, said “vegetable prices, key driver of inflation in recent months, have started falling in the last couple of weeks (daily prices of 10 food items tracked by us are down by about 7% month on month(mom) on an average in the first fortnight of December).”
If vegetable prices in particular and food prices in general do come down then both the consumer price and wholesale price inflation are likely to fall. If we look at the RBI’s decision to not raise the repo rate from this point of view, it looks perfectly fine.
But there is another important data point that one needs to take a look at. And that is core retail inflation. If one excludes food and fuel constituents that make up for around 60% of the consumer price index, the core retail inflation was at 8% in November 2013. This needs to be controlled to rein in inflationary expectations. As the monetary policy review statement of the RBI points out “High inflation…risks entrenching inflation expectations at unacceptably elevated levels, posing a threat to growth and financial stability.”
According to a recent survey of inflationary expectations carried out by the RBI, Indian households expect consumer prices to rise by 13% in 2014. Th rate of inflation that people(individuals, businesses, investors) think will prevail in the future is referred to as inflationary expectation. Inflationary expectations can be reined in to some extent by raising interest rates. As Baig and Das said in a note dated December 16, “RBI would still want to maintain a hawkish stance to ensure that inflation expectations (which is firmly in double digit territory as per recent surveys) do not rise further.”
The trouble here is that higher interest rates will dampen consumer expenditure further. At higher interest rates people are less likely to borrow and spend. The businesses are less likely to expand. This is reflected in the private final consumption expenditure(PFCE) number which is a part of the GDP number measured from the expenditure point of view. The PFCE for the period between July and September 2013 grew by just 2.2%(at 2004-2005 prices) from last year. Between July and September 2012 it had grown by 3.5%. The PFCE currently forms around 59.8% of the GDP when measured from the expenditure side.
The lack of consumer demand is also reflected in the index of industrial production(IIP), a measure of industrial activity. For October 2013, IIP fell by 1.8% in comparison to the same period last year. If people are not buying as many things as they used to, there is no point in businesses producing them. It is also reflected in manufactured products inflation, which forms around 65% of WPI. It stood at 2.64% in November 2013.
When the demand is not going up, businesses are not in a position to increase prices. And that is reflected in the manufacturing products inflation of just 2.64%. It was at 5.41% in November 2012.
Given this, if the Rajan led RBI were to keep raising the repo rate to bring down inflationary expectations, it would kill consumer demand further. The Congress led UPA government won’t want anything like this to happen in the months to come. They have already messed up with the economy enough.
Hence, Rajan and the RBI would have to make this tricky decision. If the keep raising the repo rate, chances are they might be able to rein in inflationary expectations and hence inflation, in the time to come. Nevertheless, if they keep doing that the chances of the Congress led UPA in the Lok Sabha elections will go down further.
To conclude, when Arthur Burns was appointed as the chairman of the Federal Reserve on January 30, 1970, president Richard Nixon had remarked,“I respect his independence. However, I hope that independently he will conclude that my views are the ones that should be followed”. Burns had not disappointed Nixon and started running an easy money policy before the 1972 presidential election, which Nixon eventually won.
Raghuram Rajan needs to decide, whether he wants to go against the government of the day and do what Volcker did, or fall in line and help the government win the next election, like Burns did. Its a tricky choice.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 20, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)