Explained: What Raghuram Rajan Just Did To Make Monetary Policy More Effective

In the last monetary policy statement released by the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) on December 1, 2015, the governor Raghuram Rajan had said: “Since the rate reduction cycle that commenced in January [2015], less than half of the cumulative policy repo rate reduction of 125 basis points [one basis point is one hundredth of a percentage] has been transmitted by banks. The median base lending rate has declined only by 60 basis points.” Repo rate is the rate at which RBI lends to banks and acts as a sort of a benchmark to the interest rates that banks pay for their deposits and in turn charge on their loans.

What this means is that even though the Rajan led RBI has cut the repo rate by 125 basis points, banks in turn have cut their lending rate by only around 60 basis points on an average. This clearly tells us is that the monetary policy of the RBI (or the process of setting interest rates) has only been half effective.

Why is that the case? A major reason for this lies in the way the banks calculate their base rate or the minimum interest rate that a bank can charge its customers. How is this base rate calculated? As the RBI Draft Guidelines on Transmission of Monetary Policy Rates to Banks’ Lending Rates released earlier this year pointed out: “At present, banks follow different methodologies for computing their Base Rate. While some use the average cost of funds method, some have adopted the marginal cost of funds while others use the blended cost of funds (liabilities) method. It was observed that Base Rates based on marginal cost of funds are more sensitive to changes in the policy rates.”

What does this statement mean? Some banks follow the average cost of funds method to decide on the base rate of their lending. The average cost of funds is the average interest rate that a bank pays on the fixed deposits and other borrowings that it raises. In this scenario if the average cost of funds of the bank is high, a cut in the repo rate is not going to lead to a similar cut in the base rate of the bank.

Hence, even if the RBI cuts the repo rate, the chances of the bank passing on a similar interest rate cut to its prospective borrowers remains low. The trouble here is that banks do go ahead and cut their deposit rates without cutting their lending rates. Hence, they pay a lower rate of interest rate on their deposits but continue to charge a higher rate of interest on their loans. They make more money in the process. Over the last few years, the public sector banks have piled up a lot of bad loans and it has been interest to cut deposit rates without cutting lending rates. It also leads to a situation where the RBI repo rate cut does not percolate through the financial system, making the monetary policy only partially effective.

On the other hand, some banks use the marginal cost of funds to decide on their base rate. The RBI found that banks which used this method where much more faster in cutting interest rates on their loans. Marginal cost of funds is essentially the interest rate that a bank pays on its new deposits as well as other borrowings.

As the RBI Draft Guidelines referred to earlier point out: “The marginal cost should be arrived at by taking into consideration all sources of fund other than equity. Cost of deposits should be calculated using the latest interest rate/card rate payable on current and savings deposits and the term deposits of various maturities. Cost of borrowings should be arrived at using the average rates at which funds were raised in the last one month preceding the date of review. Each of these rates should be weighted by the proportionate balance outstanding on the date of review.”

In a release last week, the RBI said that from April 1, 2016 onwards it wants all banks to follow the marginal cost of funding method to decide on their base rate. This means that if the banks cut their deposit rate in the aftermath of a RBI repo rate cut, they will have to cut their lending rates as well, because their marginal cost of funding will automatically fall. By doing this the RBI has essentially ensured that new borrowers of the bank will have access to lower interest rates automatically once the bank decides to cut its deposit rates.

Further, banks cannot lend below the marginal cost of funds based lending rate. This rate needs to be declared every month on a given date, though during the first year banks have been allowed to declare this rate once every three months.

Also, banks have been asked to declare a marginal cost of funds based lending rate for  overnight loans, one-month, three-months, six-months and one-year loan. The banks have been given the option of publishing the marginal costs of funds based lending rate of maturities longer than one year as well.

What this means is that the banks now have the opportunity of matching their loans with their deposits. Hence, a loan being given out for a period of one year can be given out at the marginal rate of interest that the bank pays on a deposit (or any other borrowing) for a one- year period plus a certain spread over and above it.

As R.K. Bansal, executive director at IDBI Bank Ltd told Mint: “The differentiation based on tenor will be a big positive for banks as now we would be able to price our loans based on the deposits of the corresponding tenor, rather than the older practice of considering 3-6 month deposit rate for computing base rates for all loans.” Following this process banks can now largely avoid the asset-liability mismatch between their loans and their deposits, that they used to get into earlier.

How will this work for new borrowers? They will pay the rate of interest determined by the marginal cost of funds method until the date of the next reset. The reset date has to be one year or lower and has to be a part of the loan contract.

And how will this work for old borrowers i.e. those who have already borrowed from the bank under the old base rate regime? In this case, the borrowers will continue to pay their EMIs as they have been during the past. The banks will keep publishing the base rate as per the old method. In fact, old borrowers have an option of moving “to the Marginal Cost of Funds based Lending Rate (MCLR) linked loan at mutually acceptable terms.” The RBI has asked the banks not to treat this as a foreclosure of existing facility.

This methodology is expected to help banks to react faster to the repo rate cuts by the RBI by passing on similar interest rate cuts on their lending to new borrowers. In fact, once banks move on to this new way of calculating lending rates, new borrowers are likely to pay a lower rate of interest on their loans, in comparison to what they currently are.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared in Swarajya Mag on December 23, 2015