In September, inflation as measured by the consumer price index continued to remain in elevated territory at 7.34%. Inflation is the rate of price rise in comparison to the same period last year.
Let’s take a look at this relatively high inflation of 7.34%, pointwise.
1)Only twice in the last five years has the monthly inflation figure been higher than that in September 2020. This was in January 2020 and December 2019, at 7.59% and 7.35%, respectively. The December 2019 inflation figure was more or less similar to the September 2020 number.
2)Interestingly, eight out of the ten highest inflation months in the last five years have been in 2020. What this clearly tells us is that 2020 has been a year of high inflation. Alongside this consumer demand has collapsed and there is stagnation in the economy. Hence, 2020 has been the year of stagflation (stagnation + inflation) as well. While, this wasn’t clear at the beginning of 2020 when covid hadn’t made an appearance (and I had said so), it is very clear by now (and I am saying so).
3)In an environment where consumer demand has collapsed, prices should be falling and not going up. What’s the logic here? When consumer demand collapses, firms in order to get people to consume, cut prices. This leads to lower inflation or even deflation (in worst cases, when prices fall).
But that hasn’t happened in the Indian context. The question is why? The following chart plots food inflation (using data from the consumer price index) over the last five years and possibly has the answer.
High food inflation
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Food inflation in India has been rising since early 2019 and it has continued to remain high in the post-covid environment. The inflation of vegetables, pulses, oils and fats and egg, meat and fish, was in double digits in September. Vegetable prices led the way and rose at the rate of 20.73% during the course of the month, with potato prices rising 101.98%.
4)Food carries a weight of 39.06% in the overall consumer price index. In the rural part, it carries a weight of 47.25%. Hence, elevated food inflation pushes up overall inflation. Also, the thing to notice here is that food prices were high even before the covid-pandemic struck. This was due to weather disruptions among other things. The trend of high food prices has continued post-covid.
5) Take a look at the following chart. It plots the difference in food inflation as measured by the consumer price index and as measured by the wholesale price index.
The Farmer Doesn’t Benefit
Source: Author calculations on data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
What does this chart tell us? It tells us that post-covid, the food prices at the consumer level have been growing at a much faster rate than food prices at the wholesale level. The average difference between April and August was 610 basis points. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. The wholesale price index data for September is yet to come in (It will be published tomorrow).
What this means is that, despite the end consumers of food paying a higher price, the farmers are largely not benefitting from this rise in food prices, given that they sell their produce at the wholesale level. This difference can be because of a few reasons.
a) A collapse in supply chains has led to what is being sold at the wholesale level not reaching the consumers at the retail level, thus, leading to higher prices for the consumer.
b) This could also mean those running the supply chains hoarding stuff, in order to increase their profit.
Having said that, the former reason makes more sense given that stuff like vegetables, egg, fish and meat, etc., cannot really be hoarded. Also, hoarding stuff like pulses, needs a specialized storage environment which India largely lacks.
6) The difference in food inflation as measured by the consumer price index and as measured by the wholesale price index peaked in April at 790 basis points. This makes complete sense given the lockdown was at its peak during the month. As the economy has opened up, the difference has come down.
Nevertheless, in August the difference was at 521 basis points. This is still high given that the average of the difference over the last five years is 38 basis points. Also, with the food inflation as measured by the consumer price index going up by 163 basis points to 10.68% in September 2020, in comparison to August 2020, chances are that the difference in food inflation as measured by the consumer price index and as measured by the wholesale price index, might go up in September.
7)So, what does this mean for food inflation in the second half of this financial year? The monetary policy committee of the RBI projects that the inflation will be between 4.5-5.4% during the second half of this financial year. This can only be if food inflation comes down and also, it does not seep into overall inflation.
In the past, high food inflation has seeped into wage inflation and overall food inflation. It remains to be seen whether this happens this time around as well. The monetary policy committee doesn’t think so, but then it has as much control over food prices as it has over the finance ministry.
“Food inflation has remained elevated in recent months driven by price pressures in vegetables, cereals and protein items such as pulses, eggs and meat. The normal south-west monsoon, increased sowing of kharif crops, moderate MSP hikes, and high reservoir storage are expected to soften food inflation going forward.”
It goes on to say:
“However, a delayed normalisation of supply chains, heavy rains and floods in some states and demand-supply imbalances in key items such as pulses could exert further upward pressure on the headline inflation and keep it higher by around 50 basis points. On the other hand, an accelerated softening of food inflation due to an early restoration of supply chains, ample buffer stocks and efficient food stock management by the Government could bring headline inflation below the baseline by up to 50 basis points.”
So, the RBI in the monetary policy report is basically saying it could go either ways. In the process, it has hedged itself well, either ways.
8)Until the dynamic of whether food inflation is seeping into overall inflation becomes clear, it will be very difficult for the RBI to cut the repo rate any further than 4%, where it currently stands. The repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends to banks.
Also, if the food inflation starts seeping into the overall inflation, the easy money policy of the RBI, where it has been printing and pumping money into the economy to drive down the interest rates, will have to take a backseat.
The RBI has pumped a lot of money into the financial system since February. Some of it has been done by buying bonds from financial institutions. But a lot of it has been done by defending the rupee. When a lot of foreign money comes into India, the demand for rupee increases and it tends to appreciate against the dollar. This hurts exporters as well as domestic producers.
To prevent this from happening the RBI intervenes in the foreign exchange market by selling rupees and buying dollars. When the RBI sells rupees the money supply in the economy goes up. The RBI has an option of sterilising this rupee inflow by selling government bonds and sucking out the excess money. But it has chosen not to do this, which is in line with its easy money policy.
In the recent past, the RBI has allowed the rupee to appreciate against the dollar, by not buying dollars, and not adding rupees to the money supply through this route. This is primarily because there is already too much easy money floating around in the financial system.
This easy money hasn’t led to inflation because banks are going slow on lending and borrowers are being very careful before borrowing. This has ensured that the dynamic of too much money following the same amount of goods and services hasn’t played out and hasn’t created an even higher inflation.
Nevertheless, as the economy continues to recover there is a chance of this happening. Hence, the RBI needs to be careful with its easy money policy, especially if food inflation starts seeping into the overall inflation.
In the latest monetary policy, the monetary policy committee had said: “The MPC also decided to continue with the accommodative stance as long as necessary – at least during the current financial year and into the next financial year – to revive growth on a durable basis and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, while ensuring that inflation remains within the target going forward [italics added].”
In simple English, this means that the RBI will keep driving lower interest rates to create growth. Up until now it doesn’t seem to be worried about its inflation mandate (to maintain the inflation as measured by the consumer price index between the range of 2-6%). But if food inflation remains high and seeps into overall inflation, the RBI will have a major problem at its hand, with all the liquidity it has pumped into the financial system.
9)Even if inflation falls to 4.5-5.4% as the RBI expects it to, the real return on fixed deposits after adjusting for inflation and taxes paid on the interest earned, will continue to remain in negative territory. And that’s not good news for savers as their savings will lose purchasing power. It’s great news for borrowers because inflation means they are repaying their loans in money which is worth less than it was at the time it was borrowed.
10)As much as economists might want us to believe, economics is no science. There are too many ifs and buts and maybes to the predictions that are made. And this is something that every reader needs to be aware of. This is true as much of this situation as it is of others.
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.
“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.
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.
The British politician Ian Macleod is said to have first used the word stagflation in a 1965 speech he gave to the Parliament, where he said:
“We now have the worst of both worlds—not just inflation on the one side or stagnation on the other, but both of them together. We have a sort of “stagflation” situation. And history, in modern terms, is indeed being made.”
The words stagnation and inflation came together to create the new word stagflation. The economic growth in United Kingdom in 1965 was 2.1%, falling to 1.6% in 1966. Consumer prices inflation during the year was at 4.8%. While, this might not sound much, it was the highest in more than half a decade. Inflation in United Kingdom would touch a high of 24.2% a decade later in 1975.
Hence, stagflation became a term which referred to a situation of slow economic growth or stagnation and high inflation.
Many economists and analysts are asking if India has entered a stagflationary scenario now, just like the British had in the mid 1960s. The consumer prices inflation for August 2020 was at 6.7%. The consumer prices inflation for April to August in the current financial year has been at 6.6%, higher than the Reserve Bank of India’s comfort range of 2-6%.
What is worrying is the food inflation level. Food inflation in August was 9.1%, whereas food inflation during this financial year has been at 9.6%. Within this, the inflation in the price of vegetables was at 10.9%, oil and fats at 11.8%, pulses at 18.2% and that of egg, fish and meat at 15%.
At the same time, the Indian economy as measured by its gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 23.9% during April to June 2020, in comparison to a year earlier. Things are expected to slightly improve during the period July to September 2020, but the Indian economy will contract in comparison to last year.
Hence, during the first six months of 2020-21, India will see the economy contracting and high inflation. Stagflation doesn’t quite represent this scenario, for the simple reason that stagnation represents slow economic growth and not an economic contraction as big as the one India is seeing.
As Macleod put it in the 1960s: “History, in modern terms, is indeed being made.” What was true in the 1960s Britain is also true about the 2020 India.
Given this, it’s time to coin a new word to represent this particular situation of economic contraction plus inflation and call it CONFLATION (I considered Contraflation as well but somehow Conflation just sounded better and the word anyway means the merging of ideas, so, works that way as well).
What does this conflation really mean in the overall scheme of things for India for the remaining part of the year? Let’s take a look at it pointwise.
1)A high inflation, especially food inflation, during a time when incomes are contracting is going to hurt the economy badly. People are having to pay more for food while their incomes are contracting. This means that spending on non-food items is going to come down. This will impact overall consumer demand right through the remaining part of the year. It is estimated that poor households allocate up to 50% of their expenditure towards food. So, conflation will hurt.
Lower consumer demand also leads to a fall in investments simply because there is no point in corporates expanding production, when people aren’t buying things like they used to. This again will negatively impact the economy. (A contraction in investments has been negatively impacting the economy for close to a decade now).
2)High food inflation has primarily been on account of supply-chains from rural to urban India, breaking down. This means that the farmers are not the ones benefitting from the high food prices. Basically, the traders, as usual, are cashing in on the shortage.
This can be gauged from the fact that food inflation as measured by the consumer price index during the year has stood at 9.6%.
Food inflation as measured by the wholesale price index has stood at 3.1%. This clearly tells us who is benefitting from food inflation. It’s clearly not the farmers. If farmers need to benefit, the terms of trade need to shift in their favour, something that hasn’t happened in many years.
3)Some economists have been of the view that food prices will slowdown in the second half of the year, thanks to a bumper agricultural output. Anagha Deodhar of ICICI Securities writes: “We expect vegetable and pulses inflation to start moderating from September 2020 and October 2020 respectively due to base effect. These two items together account for almost one-fifth of food basket and hence meaningful decline in their inflation rates could keep a lid on headline inflation as well.”
While this is true, what this view does not take into account is the fact that covid is now spreading to rural areas. 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.
Also, the spread of the pandemic could impact the harvesting and the marketing of agricultural products. Hence, overall agricultural production may not grow along expected lines. Given this, food inflation may not fall as much as it is expected to and might continue to remain elevated. Again, a sign of conflation hurting the economy.
4) The medical facilities in rural India are nowhere as good as the ones in urban India (This is not to say that medical facilities in urban India are excellent). The spread of covid pandemic will mean that people will have to spend money treating the disease.
This will lead to the cutting down on spending towards other items. Also, more importantly, the spread of the pandemic will even have an impact on the spending of people who haven’t been affected by it. People will save more for the rainy day. So, conflation will continue to hurt the Indian economy.
5)Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the fact that the money supply* has gone up by more than 11.7% consecutively for the last four months. This hasn’t happened since 2014. What this tells us is that the Reserve Bank of India is really pumping in money into the financial system. If all this money keeps floating around in the months to come, then there is a real danger of this leading to a further rise in prices. (A piece on how the RBI has botched up the monetary policy remains due).
6)But all this remains valid only for 2020-21. Come 2021-22, and India will be back in growth territory again and hence, conflation will be out of the picture. This, as I had explained in an earlier piece, will primarily be because of the base effect.
Basically, the GDP figure in 2020-21 will turn out to be so terrible that it will make the GDP growth in 2021-22, look fantastic. But this won’t mean much because only in 2022-23 are we likely to go past the GDP figure of 2019-20. This means the Indian economy is likely to go back by two years and that will be the cost of conflation.
To conclude, the Indian economy will contract during the second half of the financial year. There is a slim chance of growth being flat for the period January to March 2021. Inflation, even though it might come down a little, is likely to remain high due to the spread of the covid pandemic. Hence, India will see conflation through 2020-21.
On Saturday, August 20, 2016, the Narendra Modi government appointed Urjit Patel, as the 24th governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI). He will take over fromRaghuram Rajan, on September 4, 2016.
Since Patel’s appointment two days back, a small cottage industry has emerged around trying to figure out what his thinking on various issues is. The trouble is that Patel has barely given any speeches, or interviews, for that matter, since he became the deputy governor of the RBI, in January 2013.
A check on the speeches page of the RBI tells me that he has given only one speech (you can read it here) and one interview (you can read it here) in the more than three and a half years, he has been the deputy governor of the RBI.
You can’t gauge much about his thinking from the speech which is two and a half pages long. As far as the interview goes, Patel has answered all of three questions. Some of his thinking can be gauged from the Report of the Expert Committee to Revise and Strengthen the Monetary Policy Framework¸ of which he has the Chairman. The report was published in January 2014 and ultimately became the basis for the formation of the monetary policy committee, which will soon become a reality.
There are also a few research papers that he has authored over the years.
Given this, Patel’s thinking on various issues will become clearer as we go along and as he interacts more with the media in the days to come. While he may have managed to avoid the media in his role as the deputy governor that surely won’t be possible once he takes over as the RBI governor. He may not make as many speeches as his predecessor did (which is something that the Modi government probably already likes about him), but there is no way he can avoid interacting with the press, after every monetary policy statement, and giving interviews now and then.
Given this, the policy continuity argument being made across the media about Patel being appointed the RBI governor, is rather flaky. There isn’t enough evidence going around to say the same. The only thing that can perhaps be said from what Patel has written over the years is that his views on inflation seem to be in line with Rajan’s thinking. Also, some of the stuff that is being cited was written many years back. And people do change views over the years. There is no way of knowing if Patel has.
The Challenges for the new RBI governor
While, his thinking on various issues may not be very clear, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out what his bigger challenges are. Take a look at the following chart. It maps the inflation as measured by the consumer price index since August 2014.
The chart tells us very clearly that the inflation as measured by the consumer price index is at its highest level since August 2014. In August 2014, the inflation was at 7.03 per cent. In July 2016, it came in at 6.07 per cent.
Like the inflation as measured by the consumer price index, the rate of food inflation is also at its highest level since August 2014. In August 2014, the food inflation was at 8.93 per cent. In July 2014, the food inflation was at 8.35 per cent. Food products make for a greater chunk of the consumer price index.
What this tells us is that the inflation as measured by the consumer price index spikes up when the food inflation spikes up. And that is the first order effect of high food inflation. This becomes clear from the following chart.
But what can the RBI do about food inflation?
There is not much that the RBI can do about food inflation. And this is often offered as a reason, especially by the corporate chieftains and those close to the government (not specifically the Modi government but any government), for the RBI to cut the repo rate. The repo rate is the rate of interest that the RBI charges commercial banks when they borrow overnight from it. It communicates the policy stance of the RBI and tells the financial system at large, which way the central bank expects interest rates to go in the days to come.
The trouble is that things are not as simplistic as the corporate chieftains make them out to be. While, the RBI has no control over food inflation (and not that the government does either), it can control the second-order effects of food inflation.
As D Subbarao, former governor of the RBI, writes in his new book Who Moved My Interest Rate?-Leading the Reserve Bank of India Through Five Turbulent Years: “What about the criticism that monetary policy is an ineffective tool against supply shocks? This is an ageless and timeless issue. I was not the first governor to have had to respond to this, and I know I won’t be the last. My response should come as no surprise. In a $1500 per capita economy-where food is a large fraction of the expenditure basket-food inflation quickly spills into wage inflation and therefore into core inflation…When food has such a dominant share in the expenditure basket, sustained food inflation is bound to ignite inflationary expectations.”
Given this, the entire logic of the RBI cutting the repo rate because it cannot manage food inflation is basicallybunkum. Food inflation inevitably translates into overall inflation and that is something that the RBI has some control over, through the repo rate. If this is not addressed, second order effects of food inflation can lead to an even higher inflation as measured by the consumer price index. And this will hurt a large section of the population.
As Subbarao writes: “The Reserve Bank of India cannot afford to forget that there is a much larger group that prioritizes lower inflation over a faster growth. This is the large majority of public comprising of several millions of low-and-middle-income households who are hurt by rising prices and want the Reserve Bank to maintain stable prices. Inflation, we must note, is a regressive tax; the poorer you are, the more you are hurt by rising prices.”
But one cannot expect corporate chieftains who have taken on a huge amount of debt over the years, in order to further their ambitions, to understand this rather basic point. Given this, this hasn’t stopped them from demanding a repo rate cut from the new RBI governor. (You can read more about it here). The government has also made it clear over and over again that it wants the RBI to cut the repo rate. Given that, it is the biggest borrower, this is not surprising. Since January 2015, the RBI has cut the repo rate by 150 basis points to 6.5 per cent. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.
As Subbarao writes: “The narrative of our growth-inflation debate is also shaped by what I call the ‘decibel capacity’. The trade and the industry sector, typically a borrower of money, prioritizes growth over inflation, and lobbies for a softer interest-rate regime.”
The people who invest in deposits unlike the corporate chieftains are not in a position to lobby. But it is important that the RBI does not forget about them.
Hence, it is important that people are offered a positive real rate of interest on their fixed deposits. The real rate of interest is essentially the difference between the nominal rate of interest offered on fixed deposits and the prevailing rate of inflation. A positive real rate of interest is important in order to encourage people to save and build the domestic savings of India, which have been falling over the last few years.
This was one of the bigger mistakes made during the second-term of the Manmohan Singh government.
As outgoing governor Raghuram Rajan told NDTV in an interview sometime back “When inflation was 9 per cent they [i.e. depositors] were getting 9 per cent. This meant earning nothing in real terms and losing everything in inflation.”
This wasn’t the case for many years. As Rajan explained in a June 2016 speech: “In the last decade, savers have experienced negative real rates over extended periods as CPI has exceeded deposit interest rates. This means that whatever interest they get has been more than wiped out by the erosion in their principal’s purchasing power due to inflation. Savers intuitively understand this, and had been shifting to investing in real assets like gold and real estate, and away from financial assets like deposits.”
Inflation up, savings down
Take a look at the following chart clearly shows that between 2008 and 2013, the real rate of return on deposits was negative. In fact, it was close to 4 per cent in the negative territory in 2010.
High inflation essentially ensured that India’s gross domestic savings have been falling over the last decade. Between 2007-2008 and 2013-2014, the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index, averaged at around 9.5 per cent per year. In 2007-2008, the gross domestic savings peaked at 36.8 per cent of the GDP. Since then they have been falling and in 2013-2014, the gross domestic savings were at 30.5 per cent of the GDP, having improved from a low of 30.1 per cent of GDP in 2012-2013.
This fall in gross domestic savings has come about because of a dramatic fall in household financial savings. Household financial savings is essentially a term used to refer to the money invested by individuals in fixed deposits, small savings schemes of India Post, mutual funds, shares, insurance, provident and pension funds, etc. A major part of household financial savings in India is held in the form of bank fixed deposits and post office small savings schemes.
Between 2005-2006 and 2007-2008, the average rate of household financial savings stood at 11.6 per cent of the GDP. In 2009-2010, it rose to 12 per cent of GDP. By 2011-2012, it had fallen to 7 per cent of the GDP. The household financial savings in 2014-2015, stood at 7.5 per cent of GDP. Chances of this figure having improved in 2015-2016 are pretty good given that a real rate of return on deposits is on offer for savers, after many years.
If a programme like Make in India has to take off, India’s household financial savings in particular and overall gross domestic savings in general, need to be on solid ground. And that is only going to happen if people are encouraged to save by ensuring that they make a real rate of return on their deposits. In fact, if India needs to grow at 10 per cent per year, an estimate made in Vijay Joshi’s book India’s Long Road suggests that the savings rate will have to be around 41 per cent of the GDP.
As Rakesh Mohan and Munish Kapoor of the International Monetary Fund write in a research paper titledPressing the Indian Growth Accelerator: Policy Imperatives: “In the near future, we expect financial savings to be restored to the earlier 10 per cent level, as inflation subsides, monetary conditions stabilize and households begin to obtain positive real interest rates on their deposits and other financial savings. Financial savings are then projected to increase gradually to around 13 per cent by 2027-32.”
And how is this going to happen? As Mohan and Kapoor point out: “A sustained reduction in inflation that leads to the maintenance of low nominal interest rates, but positive real interest rates, will help in restoring corporate profitability, while encouraging household savings towards financial instruments.”
As can be seen from the graph, the difference between the repo rate (the orange line) and overall inflation (i.e. inflation as measured by the consumer price index) has narrowed considerably and is at its lowest level in the last two years. This effectively means that the real rate of return on fixed deposits offered by banks has been falling as the rate of inflation has been going up. (Ideally, I should have taken the average rate of return on fixed deposits instead of the repo rate, but that sort of data is not so easily available. Hence, I have taken the repo rate as a proxy).
This is not a good sign on several counts. In a country like India where deposits are a major way through which people save, high inflation leading to lower real rates of interest which effectively means that they are not saving as much as they should. This is something that most people do not seem to understand.
The economist Michael Pettis makes a very interesting point about the relationship between interest rate and consumption in case of China. As he writes in The Great Rebalancing: “Most Chinese savings, at least until recently, have been in the form of bank deposits…Chinese households, in other words, should feel richer when the deposit rate rises and poorer when it declines, in which case rising rates should be associated with rising, not declining, consumption.”
Now replace China with India in the above paragraph and the logic remains exactly the same. Given that a large portion of the Indian household financial savings are invested in bank deposits, any fall in interest rates (as the corporate chieftains regularly demand) should make people feel poorer and in the process negatively impact consumption, at least from the point of savers.
Given this, the biggest challenge for Urjit Patel will be to not taken in by all these demands for lower interest rates and ensure that the deposit holders get a real rate of interest on their fixed deposits.
Further, it is unlikely that he will cut the repo rate given that as the monetary policy committee comes in place, the RBI needs to maintain a rate of inflation between 2 to 6 per cent. In July 2016, the rate of inflation was over 6 per cent.
Rahul Gandhi recently came back to India from his foreign sojourn of nearly two months. And in his new avatar, Rahul is angry. One of the things he is angry about is the fact that the Narerndra Modi government after coming to power decided to go slow on increasing the minimum support price of wheat and rice. The MSP is the price at which the government buys rice and wheat from the farmers, through the Food Corporation of India(FCI) and other state government agencies. Rahul told a farmers’ rally in New Delhi on Sunday: “We increased the MSP of wheat from Rs 540 to Rs 1400…The MSP has not changed, no benefit to farmers.” Between 2005-2006 and 2013-2014, the MSP of wheat was increased at an average rate of 14% per year. The Congress led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) was in power throughout this period. In comparison, between 1999-2000 and 2005-2006, the price had gone up by 4% per year. The decision to raise MSP did not have any method behind it. It was totally random. A report released by the Comptroller and Auditor General in May 2013 pointed out that “No specific norm was followed for fixing of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) over the cost of production. Resultantly, it was observed the margin of MSP fixed over the cost of production varied between 29 per cent and 66 per cent in case of wheat, and 14 per cent and 50 per cent in case of paddy during the period 2006-2007 to 2011-2012.” Nevertheless, political decisions do not follow economic logic. But the question is did this decision to constantly keep increasing the MSP benefit the people of India at large. The answer is no. It was the major reason behind the high inflation in general and food inflation in particular, that was seen between 2008 and 2014. As economist Surjit Bhalla put it in a November 2013 column in The Indian Express “For each 10 per cent rise in previous years’ procurement prices, there is a predicted 3.3 per cent increase in the current year CPI…When the government raises the MSP, the prices of factors of production involved in the production of MSP products — land and labour — also go up.” Food inflation hurts the poor the most. Half of the expenditure of an average Indian family is on food. In case of the poor it is 60% (NSSO 2011). What Rahul and the Congress party need to understand is that everyone associated with agriculture does not own land. As per the draft national land reforms policy which was released in July 2013, nearly 31% of all households in India were supposed to be landless. The NSSO defines landlessness as a situation where the area of the land owned is less than 0.002 hectares. Any price rise, particularly a rise in food prices which is what an increase in MSP leads to, hurts this section of the population the most. Is Rahul not worried about them? They may not be farmers who own land, but they also farm land in this country. Also, Rahul needs to realize that only a small section of the farmers have a marketable surplus, which they are able to sell to the government. This is primarily because the average holding size of land has come down over the decades. The State of the Indian Agricultural Report for 2012-2013 points out that: “As per Agriculture Census 2010-11, small and marginal holdings of less than 2 hectare account for 85 per cent of the total operational holdings and 44 per cent of the total operated area. The average size of holdings for all operational classes (small & marginal, medium and large) have declined over the years and for all classes put together it has come down to 1.16 hectare in 2010-11 from 2.82 hectare in 1970-71.” This means that only a small section of the farmers make money only from agriculture. Only 17% of farmers survive on income totally from agriculture. The rest do other things as well to make money. And given this they are hurt by the food inflation because of a rapid increase in MSP. The Congress led UPA government also increased the MSP of rice at a very rapid rate. In 2005-2006, the MSP for common paddy(rice) was Rs 570 per quintal. By 2013-2014 this had shot up to Rs 1310 per quintal, an increase in price of around 11% per year. In comparison, between 1998-1999 and 2005-2006, the MSP of rice had increased at the rate of 3.8% per year. This rapid increase in MSP led to a huge amount of food grains landing up with the government. The FCI did not have enough space to store all this grain. “Between 2005 and 2013, close to 1.94 lakh tonnes of food grain were wasted in India, as per FCI’s own admission in the Parliament,” a Crisil Research report points out. Rice formed 84% of the total damage. While rice and wheat rotting in government godowns, there wasn’t enough of it going around in the open market. The CAG report referred to earlier points out that in 2006-2007, 63.3 million tonnes of rice landed in the open market. By 2011-2012, this had fallen by a huge 23.6% to 48.3 million tonnes. The same is true about about wheat as well, though the drop is not as pronounced as it is in the case of rice. In 2006-2007, the total amount of wheat in the open market stood at 62.1 million tonnes. By 2011-2012, this had dropped to 61.4 million tonnes. Also, with MSPs being increased every year at a rapid rate, “the cropping pattern,” the Crisil report points out, was also “biased towards food grains like rice and wheat,” and this led to their “excessive production”. This is what the Congress led UPA’s policy of constantly increasing MSPs, actually did. To conclude, as the old English saying goes, “the proof of the pudding is in eating it”. If the policy of the Congress led UPA government of increasing MSPs at a rapid rate was so good, why did the Congress party end up with only 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? Maybe Rahul Gandhi has an answer for that.