On August 31, 2020, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), published an innocuously titled press release RBI Announces Measures to Foster Orderly Market Conditions. The third paragraph and the fourth line of the release said this: “The recent appreciation of the rupee is working towards containing imported inflationary pressures [emphasis added].”
What did this line mean? Take a look at the following chart. As of June 18, one dollar was worth Rs 76.55. By August 31, one dollar was worth Rs 73.13. The rupee had gained value or appreciated against the dollar.
Rupee Up, Dollar Down
Source: Yahoo Finance.
What has this got to do with inflation? When the value of the rupee appreciates against the dollar, the imports become cheaper.
Let’s say the price of a product being imported into India is $10. If the dollar is worth Rs 76, it costs Rs 760. If the dollar is worth Rs 73, it costs Rs 730. Hence, if the rupee appreciates, imports become cheaper and in the process the inflation (or the rate of price rise) that we import from abroad, comes down as well.
The trouble is that if imports become cheaper, things become difficult for the home-grown products. Hence, an appreciating rupee goes against the government’s pet idea of atmanirbhartha or producing goods locally.
Given that the current dispensation at the RBI is more or less in line with what the government wants, this move to allow the rupee to appreciate, so that it reduces imported inflation, is even more surprising. (On a different note, I am all for consumers getting to buy things cheaper than in the past. The point of all economic activity, at the end of the day, is consumption. But most people don’t think like that).
Also, RBI’s Monetary Policy Report released in April, suggests that the impact of the appreciation of rupee on inflation is at best marginal: “An appreciation of the Indian Rupee by 5 per cent could moderate inflation by around 20 basis points.” One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.
So what’s happening here? The RBI has basically hit the trilemma, something which it can’t admit to. Trilemma is a concept which was originally expounded by the Canadian economist Robert Mundell. Basically, a central bank cannot have free international movement of capital, a fixed exchange rate and an independent monetary policy, all at the same time. It can only choose two out of these three objectives. Monetary policy refers to the process of setting of interest rates in an economy, carried out by the central bank of the country.
Of course, this is economic theory and in practice things are slightly different. The more a central bank allows free international movement of capital (i.e. money) and has a tendency to continuously intervene in the foreign exchange market and not allow free movement in the price of the local currency against the dollar, the lesser control it has over its monetary policy.
Let’s try and understand this through an example. Let’s consider the central bank of a country which allows for a reasonable movement of capital. At the same time, it wants to ensure that the value of its currency against the US dollar doesn’t move much.
This is to ensure that its exporters don’t face much volatility on the exchange rate front. Over and above this, the central bank does not want its currency to appreciate because that would hurt the exporters and make them less competitive.
In this scenario, let’s say the central bank sets interest rates at a higher rate than the rates in the United States and other parts of the world. What will happen is given that reasonably free movement of capital is allowed money from other parts of the world will come flooding in to cash in on the higher interest.
When the foreign capital comes into the country in the form of dollars and other currencies, it will have to be converted into the local currency. This will lead to the demand of the local currency going up and the local currency will appreciate against the dollar. Of course, when this happens, the value of the local currency will no longer remain fixed against the US dollar.
This is where the trilemma comes to the fore. If the country wants monetary independence and free movement of capital, it cannot have a fixed exchange rate. If it wants a fixed exchange rate then it has to set interest rates around the interest rate set by the Federal Reserve, so that it doesn’t attract capital because of a higher interest rate. In the process, it loses control of monetary policy.
In the Indian case, in the recent past, the RBI has tried to pursue all the three objectives, reasonably free movement of capital, a currency (the rupee) which doesn’t appreciate against the dollar and an independent monetary policy.
The repo rate, or the rate at which the RBI lends to banks, was cut from 5.15% to 4%, in the aftermath of the covid-pandemic. The RBI has also flooded the financial system with money by buying government bonds.
Between February 24 and April 23, the RBI lent a lot of money to banks through long-term repo operations, targeted long-term repo operations and targeted long-term repo operations 2.0. These schemes have essentially lent money to banks at the repo rate for the long term. On February 24, the RBI lent Rs 25,021 crore to banks for a period of 365 days at the prevailing repo rate of 5.15%. The repo rate is the interest at which RBI lends to banks, typically for the short-term.
After this, the RBI has lent around Rs 2.13 lakh crore for a period of around three years at the prevailing repo rate. Around Rs 1 lakh crore out of this was lent at 5.15%. In late March, the RBI cut the repo rate by 75 basis points to 4.4%. The remaining Rs 1.13 lakh crore has been lent at this rate. The idea here was to encourage to lend money to banks at a low interest rate and then encourage them to lend further, under certain conditions. There has been more bond buying over and above this.
The idea was to drive down interest rates to lower levels, so that companies borrow and expand, people borrow and consume. In the process, the economy starts to recover. Also, with the government borrowing more this year, lower interest rates would help it as well.
Along with this, the reasonably free movement of capital that India allows has continued. The RBI has also intervened in the currency markets trying to ensure that the rupee doesn’t appreciate against the dollar.
What’s happening here? In the aftermath of covid, Western central banks have gone on a money printing spree, some to drive down interest rates and to get businesses to expand and people to consume, and some others to finance the expenditure of their government. Take the case of the Federal Reserve of the United States. Between February end and early June, it printed a close to $3 trillion and expanded its balance sheet by three-fourths in the process.
To cut a long story short, interest rates have been driven down globally and there is a lot of money going around looking for some extra return. Some of this money has been coming to the Indian stock market.
In 2020-21, the current financial year, the foreign institutional investors (FIIs) have net invested $7.62 billion in the Indian stock and bond market. A good amount of this, $6.66 billion, came in August, when FII investment turned into a deluge. Of course, there were months like April and May, when the FIIs net sold. Between June and August, the FIIs net invested $10.54 billion in the Indian stock and bond markets.
The foreign direct investment (FDI) coming into India between April and July stood at $5.86 billion, with $4.01 billion coming just in July. The outward FDI (Indians investing abroad) in the first four months, stood at $3.17 billion. This means that the net FDI number (foreign investments made by Indians deducted from investments in India by foreigners) has been in positive territory. Net-net dollars have come into India on the FDI front.
Over and above this, the net receipts from services (i.e. services exports minus services imports) stood at around $28 billion between April and July.
Other than this, the demand for dollars, from within India, has come down. The import of crude oil and petroleum products between April and August 2020 has fallen by 53.7% to $26.02 billion. This has been both on account of fall in price of oil as well as lower consumption. In fact, on the whole, the goods exports have fallen at a lesser pace than goods imports, again implying a reduced demand for dollars within India.
Internal remittances, the money sent by Indians working abroad back to India, must have definitely fallen this year (I say must because the data for this isn’t currently available). Nevertheless, at the same time, outward remittances, everything from money spent on health, education and travel, has also come down, given that barely anyone is travelling abroad.
What does this basically mean? It means more dollars are coming into India than leaving India. When dollars come into India they need to be converted into rupees. This increases the demand for rupees and the rupee then appreciates against the dollar. This, as I have explained above, hurts atmanirbharta, domestic producers of goods and exporters, all at once.
Preventing the appreciation of the rupee
To prevent the rupee from appreciating against the dollar, the RBI buys dollars by selling rupees. In fact, that is precisely what the RBI has done between April and July this year. It has net purchased $29 billion, the highest in this period in the last five years. The August press release suggests that the RBI stopped trying to defend the rupee from appreciating sometime during the month or at least didn’t try as hard as it did in the past.
If we look at the foreign currency assets of the RBI they have barely moved between August 28 (three days before the press release) and September 18 (the latest data available), barely increasing from $498.36 billion to $501.46 billion. This tells us that the RBI isn’t really intervening much in the foreign exchange market in the recent past. But that might also be because of the fact that in September (up to September 29), the FIIs have net sold stocks and bonds worth just $4 million. Net net, FIIs didn’t bring any dollars into India in September.
By buying dollars, the RBI releases rupees into the Indian financial system and thus increases the money supply. In the normal scheme of things, the RBI can sterilise this by selling bonds and sucking out this money. But that would have gone against the easy money policy that the Indian central bank has been running through this financial year.
The excess liquidity (or the money that the banks deposit with the RBI) in the financial system suggests that the RBI hasn’t really been sterilising the rupees it has put into the system to prevent the appreciation of the rupee. On the whole, the bond buying by the RBI in order to release money into the financial system, has been in the positive territory. The following chart plots this excess liquidity in the system.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
The excess liquidity in the system, money which banks had no use for and parked with the RBI, even crossed Rs 6 lakh crore in early May. It has since fallen but is still at a very high Rs 2.72 lakh crore.
So, what does all this mean?
The inflation between April and August, as measured by the consumer price index, has been at 6.63%. The inflation in August was at 6.69%. As per the RBI’s agreement with the government the inflation should be 4% within a band of +/- 2%.
This means that the current inflation is way beyond range. A major reason for this is high food inflation which between April and August has been at 9.58%. The food inflation in August was at 9.05%.
If we look at the core inflation (which leaves out food, fuel and light), it is at 5.16%. If we add fuel inflation to this (thanks to the government increasing the excise duty on petrol and diesel), the inflation is higher.
Where does this leave the RBI? All the liquidity in the financial system hasn’t led to even higher inflation primarily because there has been an economic collapse and people are not spending money as fast as they were in the past.
Food inflation has primarily been on account of supply chains breaking down thanks to the spread of the covid-pandemic. The trouble is that covid is now spreading across rural India. As Crisil Research put it in a recent report: “Of all the districts with 1,000+ cases, almost half were rural as on August 31, up from 20% in June.” This basically means that the supply chain issues when it comes to movement of food are likely to stay, during the second half of the year as well.
Food on its own makes up for 39.06% of the overall index and 47.25% of the index in rural India. As the Report of the Expert Committee to Revise and Strengthen the Monetary Policy Framework (better known as the Urjit Patel Committee) said:
“High inflation in food and energy items is generally reflected in elevated inflation expectations. With a lag, this gets manifested in the inflation of other items, particularly services. Shocks to food inflation and fuel inflation also have a much larger and more persistent impact on inflation expectations than shocks to non-food non-fuel inflation.”
An IMF Working Paper titled Food Inflation in India: The Role for Monetary Policy suggests the same thing: “Food inflation [feeds] quickly into wages and core inflation.” This is something that the country saw in the five-year period before 2014, when food inflation seeped into overall inflation.
What this means is that if covid continues to spread through rural India and food supply chains continue to remain broken, food inflation will persist and this will seep through into overall inflation, which is anyway on the high side.
In this situation what will the RBI do in the months to come? As mentioned earlier, all the money that the RBI has pumped into the Indian financial system hasn’t led to an even higher inflation simply because the consumer demand has collapsed. But as the economy continues to open up and the demand picks up, there is bound to be some amount of excess money chasing the same amount of goods and services, leading to higher inflation.
In this scenario what will the RBI do to prevent the appreciation of the rupee against the dollar, especially if foreign capital continues to come to India and the demand for the rupee continues to remain high?
As mentioned earlier, if the RBI buys dollars and sells rupees to prevent appreciation, it will continue to add to money supply. Interestingly, the money supply (as measured by M3 or broad money) has been growing at a pace greater than 12% (year on year) since June. This kind of rise in money supply was previously seen only before 2014, a high inflation era.
If RBI keeps trying to intervene in the foreign exchange market to prevent the appreciation of the rupee against the dollar, it will keep adding to the money supply and that creates the risk of even higher inflation. To counter this risk of higher inflation, the RBI will need to raise the repo rate or the interest rate at which it lends to banks.
This goes against what the Indian economy or for that matter any economy, needs, when it is going through an economic contraction. This in a way suggests that the RBI has lost control over the monetary policy. In fact, even if the monetary policy committee (MPC) of the RBI, whenever it meets next, keeps the repo rate constant, it suggests a lack of control over monetary policy. This also explains why the RBI hasn’t made any inflation projections since February this year.
Of course, the RBI has the option of sterilising the extra rupees it releases into the financial system by buying dollars coming into India. In order to sterilise the extra rupees being released into the financial system, the RBI needs to sell government bonds. The RBI needs to pay a certain rate of interest on these bonds. These bonds are a liability for the RBI.
As far as assets of the RBI go, a significant portion is invested in bonds issued by the American and other Western governments and the International Monetary Fund. These assets pay a much lower rate of interest than the interest that the RBI needs to pay on bonds it sells to sterilise excess rupees in the financial system. This is referred to as the quasi fiscal cost and needs to be kept in mind.
The second problem with sterilisation is that it might lead to a situation where interest rates might go up, creating further problems. As an RBI research paper titled Forex Market Operations and Liquidity Management published in August 2018 points out:
“For example, when a central bank undertakes open market sale of government securities to absorb the surplus liquidity as a part of the sterilised intervention strategy, it could harden sovereign yields, which, in turn, could attract further debt inflows driven by higher interest rate differentials.”
What does this mean in simple English? When the RBI sells government bonds to carry out sterilisation, it sucks out excess rupees from the market. This might lead to interest rates going up. If interest rates go up more foreign money will come into India looking to earn that higher interest rate. And this will create the same problem all over again, with the demand for rupee going up and the RBI having to intervene in the foreign exchange market.
Any increase in interest rates will not go down well with the government which will end up borrowing a lot of money this year, thanks to a collapse in tax revenues. Take a look at the following chart which plots the 10-year government bond yield from the beginning of 2020. The 10-year government bond-yield is the return an investor can expect per year, if they continue owning the bond until maturity.
Down and then slightly up
Thanks to all the easy money created by the RBI there has been excess money in the Indian financial system, since the beginning of this year. This has helped drive down bond yields from around 6.5% at the beginning of the year to a low of 5.76% in July and to around 6.04% currently. Hence, the Indian government has been able to borrow at a lower rate thanks to the excess liquidity created by the RBI and it wouldn’t want that to change. Also, the yields have been rising gradually since July, making sterilising even more difficult.
If the RBI keeps intervening it creates the risk of increasing money supply and that leading to the risk of even higher inflation. A high inflation in a poor country is never a good idea. If the RBI does not intervene that leads to the rupee appreciating and in the process creating problems for the domestic industry as well as the atmabnirbhar strategy. The exporters suffer as well.
What’s the RBI’s best strategy here? It can pray that foreign inflows slow down for a while, like they have in September. But that was basically the FIIs reacting to the Indian economy contracting by nearly a fourth between April to June. This data point was published on August 31. Also, as the economy keeps opening up more and more, imports and other spending pick up, the demand for the dollar will go up as well. All this will help the RBI. Nevertheless, if Western central banks unleash even more money printing, then all this will go for a toss.
The RBI ended up in this position by abandoning its main goal of managing price inflation. The agreement between the government and the RBI states clearly that “the objective of monetary policy is to primarily maintain price stability [emphasis added], while keeping in mind the objective of growth.”
Instead of managing inflation, the RBI chose its role as the debt manager of the government to outshine everything. This led to all the excess liquidity in the system so that interest rates were driven down and the government could borrow at lower interest rates. The Times of India reports on October 1, 2020: “The weighted cost of borrowing [for the government] during the first half was 5.8%, the lowest in 15 years.”
While the government has borrowed more, the overall non-food credit given by banks has shrunk between March 27 and September 11, from Rs 103.2 lakh crore to Rs 101.6 lakh crore. The banks lend money to the Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to primarily buy rice and wheat (and some oilseeds and pulses in the recent past) directly from the farmers. Once this credit is subtracted from overall credit of banks what remains is non-food credit.
What this tells us is that despite lower interest rates overall lending by banks has shrunk. This might primarily be because of people and firms prepaying loans as well as a general slowdown in loan disbursal. Of course, the fall in interest rates has hurt savers and nobody seems to be talking about them.
To conclude, the RBI abandoned its main goal and is now stuck because of that. As economists Raghuram Rajan and Eswar Prasad wrote in a 2008 article : “The central bank is also held responsible, in political and public circles, for a stable exchange rate. The RBI has gamely taken on this additional objective but with essentially one instrument, the interest rate, at its disposal, it performs a high-wire balancing act.”
By trying to do too many things at the same time, RBI ends up being neither here nor there. As Rajan and Prasad put it: “What is wrong with this? Simple that by trying to do too many things at once, the RBI risks doing none of them well.” This was a mistake the RBI used to make pre-2015, before the agreement with the government was signed. It has gone back to making the same mistake again.
As Rajan wrote in the 2008 Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms: “The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) can best serve the cause of growth by focusing on controlling inflation.”
But that’s not to be, given that politicians, bureaucrats and even economists, expect monetary policy to perform miracles it really can’t.
I would like to thank Chintan Patel for research assistance.