Shaktikanta Das, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), projected optimism in the latest monetary policy by reminding us of the great Lata Mangeshkar song “aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai (Now, again, I desire to live),” from the movie Guide.
The eternal message of optimism needed to be projected in order to defend the monetary policy committee’s decision to not raise the repo rate or the interest rate at which the RBI lends to banks. The repo rate has some impact on the interest rates at which banks carry out their lending. When a central bank raises the repo rate it’s essentially signalling that it is getting worried about inflation or the rate of price rise.
The RBI under Das started cutting the repo rate in February 2019, when it was at 6.5%. By May 2020, it was cut to 4%, which is where it has stayed since. So, the monetary policy has been in what economists like to call accommodative for close to two years. Along with cutting the repo rate, RBI also printed money and flooded it into the financial system by buying bonds.
The idea, in the aftermath of the covid pandemic, understandably, was to drive down interest rates, with the hope that people would borrow and spend more, and industries would borrow and expand, and the government would be able to borrow at low interest rates.
But the times are changing now, with inflation becoming a global phenomenon. As per the February 5th-11th issue of The Economist global inflation now stands at 6%. Retail inflation in the United States in January stood at 7.5%, the highest since February 1982. In December, the retail inflation in the Euro Area was at 5%, the highest it has ever been since data started to be collected in January 1997.
Not surprisingly, central banks all across the world have been raising interest rates. The Bank of England has already raised interest rates twice. The Federal Reserve of the United States will have to soon start raising rates to rein in the four-decade high retail inflation.
Retail inflation in India in December 2021 was at 5.6%, lower than 6% level above which RBI starts to get uncomfortable. Interestingly, the RBI believes that inflation during the next financial year will be at 4.5%. This, given the evidence on offer and the fact that we live in a highly globalized world, seems a tad unlikely.
Oil prices continue to remain high with the price of Brent crude being at $90 per barrel. Also, the supply chain problems, which had cropped all across the world due to the spread of the covid pandemic, haven’t gone away. Then there is the joker in the pack, on which, as always, a lot depends in the Indian case: a normal monsoon. As Dipanwita Mazumdar, an economist at the Bank of Baroda, puts it: “Another upside risk to inflation is the possibility of a below normal monsoon. Statistically, with six successive monsoons, there could be a sub-optimal one this year.”
Further, we have close to 6% retail inflation despite consumer demand at an aggregate level continuing to remain muted. Due to this, companies have been unable to pass on the increase in the cost of their inputs to the end consumers. This can be gauged from the fact that from April to December 2021, the wholesale inflation was at 12.5%, whereas retail inflation was at 5.2%. As Das put it in his statement: “The transmission of input cost pressures to selling prices remains muted in view of the continuing slack in demand”.
The lack of consumer demand has held retail inflation down. Nonetheless, companies have started raising prices as consumer demand has started to pick up. As the RBI’s monetary policy statement put it: “The pick-up in… bank credit, supportive monetary and liquidity conditions, sustained buoyancy in merchandise exports… and stable business outlook augur well for aggregate demand.”
This, in an environment of continued high oil prices, supply chain constraints and more expensive imports, implies higher retail inflation in the months to come, which means the RBI should have started raising the repo rate by now. But it hasn’t.
So, why has the RBI maintained a status quo? It’s the debt manager of the government. The government’s gross borrowing stood at Rs 12.6 lakh crore in 2020-21. It will end up borrowing Rs 10.5 lakh crore in 2021-22, with plans of borrowing Rs 15 lakh crore in 2022-23. Given this, the RBI has to help the government to borrow at low interest rates.
To cut a long story short, the RBI is not bothered about retail inflation, controlling which is its primary mandate. It’s more interested in ensuring that the government is able to borrow at low interest rates.
Finally, Das just quoted one line from the beautiful Lata song written by Shailendra and composed by SD Burman. The next line of the song goes like this: “aaj phir marne ka iraada hai ((Now, again, I desire to die)).” The translation doesn’t do justice to Shailendra’s writing which metaphorically captures the tormented state of mind of a married woman who has suddenly found love in another man, at once feeling both exhilaration and guilt and dejection.
The binaries in economics are never as strong as life and death, nonetheless, they do exist. It’s just that RBI under Das likes to be an optimistic cheerleader rather than an institution which should realistically assess the state of the Indian economy.
Hence, as far as projecting eternal optimism goes, Das should have been quoting the Gabbar Singh dialogue from Sholay written by Salim-Javed: “Jo darr gaya samjho mar gaya (the one who is afraid is dead),” and not Shailendra, SD Burman and Lata’s song.
(A slightly different version of this column appeared in the Deccan Herald on February 13, 2022.)
On May 21, the central board of directors of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) approved the transfer of Rs 99,122 crore as surplus to the central government for the accounting period of nine months ending March 31, 2021 (July 2020-March 2021).
This transfer to the government has raised a few issues. Let’s look at them point wise. But before we do that, I want to make a disclaimer here. This is a complicated topic and to make sure that I am able to explain it in simple English, I have left out a few details. At the cost of repetition, the idea is to explain the issues at hand, than get all the details right. So, to everyone who understands this inside out, apologies in advance.
Here we go.
1)The RBI’s accounting year was from July to June, different from the April to March period that the central government follows. From 2021-22 onwards, the accounting year of the RBI will be the same as that of the government. Given this, the last accounting year of the RBI was for the period of nine months from July 2020 to March 2021, as it moved to the government’s accounting year.
Despite this shortening in the accounting year, the RBI surplus to the government has jumped big time. The surplus transferred to the government from July 2019 to June 2020, had stood at Rs 57,128 crore, for a period of full 12 months. Clearly, there has been a huge jump in the surplus transferred to the government, once we consider the fact that the last accounting year of the RBI was just nine months long.
2) The annual budget of the central government presented by the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February 1, had assumed that the central government would earn Rs 53,511 crore as way of dividend/surplus from the RBI, the nationalised banks and the financial institutions (read the Life Insurance Corporation of India). A few months later, the surplus transferred just by RBI is much more than Rs 53,511 crore. So what gives?
3) Let’s first try and understand how the RBI managed to generate such a huge surplus, which was unexpected (or at least not made public) up until the budget was presented earlier this year. From July 2020 to March 2021, the RBI gross sold a total of $85.2 billion of its foreign exchange.
An accounting change made in 2019, thanks to the Bimal Jalan Committee report, now allows the RBI to pass a part of the profit made from selling foreign exchange, to the government as a surplus. The earlier system was different (for the sake of simplicity we won’t go there).
There is a certain weighted average price at which RBI has bought these dollars over the years. The RBI doesn’t reveal this detail. As per Ananth Narayan, Senior India Analyst at the Observatory Group, this weighted average stood at Rs 55.70, from July 2019 to June 2020.
It would be fair to say the weighted average would be a little higher in the last accounting year, more towards Rs 58-60 to a dollar. The RBI would have sold these dollars, from July 2020 to March 2021, at Rs 72-75 to a dollar, and thus made a profit of around Rs 15 for every dollar sold.
A part of this profit has been passed on to the central government as a surplus. So far so good.
4)While at the aggregate level, everything looks fine, if we start to look at the detailed data, this doesn’t pass the basic smell test. Take a look at the following graph, which basically plots the total gross dollars sold by the RBI every month from July 2020 to March 2021.
Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
The above chart makes for a very interesting reading. Close to 60% of the dollars sold during the accounting year were sold in the last two months ($50.5 billion of the total $85.2 billion). More than 77% of the dollars sold during the year were sold in the last three months ($65.9 billion of the total $85.2 billion).
What does this tell us? It tells us that the RBI sold a lot of dollars after the finance minister had presented the budget. And a good chunk of the surplus given to the government was probably thus generated. If I was a gossip columnist, I would have definitely speculated, whether one of the secretaries in the FinMin dialled RBI for more money, around the time the budget was presented.
5)As mentioned earlier, the facts stated above don’t pass the basic smell test. The RBI at various points of time needs to sell dollars in order to manage the dollar rupee exchange rate. While the RBI sold $65.9 billion from January to March, it also bought $61.8 billion during the same period. On the whole, this wouldn’t have made much of a difference in moving the foreign exchange market in a particular direction, when it comes to dollar rupee exchange rate.
Take a look at the following chart, which plots the dollar rupee exchange rate from January 2021 to March 2021.
Source: Yahoo Finance.
As can be seen from the above chart, the dollar rupee exchange rate moved within a narrow range of Rs 72.4-73.6, for the first three months of 2021.
So what does this really mean? The RBI sold lots of dollars after the finance minister’s budget speech, not because that was what was required in the foreign exchange market, but in order to generate an accounting surplus for a cash-starved government. If I were to put it in very simple terms, the RBI led by Shaktikanta Das, resorted to jugaad.
6) The way things stand the RBI is not allowed to directly finance the expenditure by printing money and handing it over to the government to spend. Hence, over the last couple of years, it has been resorting to different ways to do so. Selling and buying dollars in order to generate an accounting profit is one such way.
If I were to be slightly flippant here I would ask a rhetorical question – Is RBI a central bank or is it a government sponsored hedge fund?
Another way of financing the government has been printing money and buying existing government bonds from banks and other financial institutions.
While this move does not hand over money to the government directly, it does ensure that the supply of money in the financial system goes up, and the newly created money can be used by banks and financial institutions to buy fresh government bonds. Hence, this is indirect monetisaton of the government’s fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends.
To conclude, while nothing can stop a central bank from printing money, the tactic of selling dollars in order to generate a profit depends on how much the rupee depreciates against the dollar. While the weighted average cost of the dollars that the RBI currently has, is less than Rs 60 to a dollar, it will only rise in the years to come.
Hence, for enough profit to be generated through this route, the rupee needs to depreciate against the dollar. But that’s where atma nirbharta will come in and limit the RBI’s hand. Strong nations have strong currencies, at least that’s the idea in the heads of the politicians who run the current government.
After Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank on Wall Street went bust in September 2008, the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, came up with three rounds of large-scale asset purchases (LSAP). The LSAP was popularly referred to as quantitative easing or QE.
Yesterday, Shaktikanta Das, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced a similar sounding GSAP or G-sec acquisition programme, where G-sec stands for government securities. India now has its own planned QE. (At the risk of deviation, it’s not just the Indian film industry which copies the Americans, our central bank also does.)
The government of India issues financial securities known as government securities or government bonds, in order to finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends. Banks, insurance companies, non-banking finance companies, mutual funds and other financial institutions, buy these securities. Some are mandated to do so, others do it out of their own free will.
What does GSAP entail? Like was the case with the Federal Reserve and the LSAP, the RBI will print money and buy government securities. For the first quarter of 2021-22 (April to June), the RBI has committed to buying government securities worth Rs 1 lakh crore. The first purchase under GSAP of Rs 25,000 crore will happen on April 15, later this month.
Why is this being done? Among other things, the RBI is also the debt manager for the central government. It manages government’s borrowing programme. After borrowing Rs 12.8 lakh crore in 2020-21, the government is expected to borrow another Rs 12.05 lakh crore in 2021-22. Due to the covid-pandemic and a general slowdown in tax revenues over the years, the government has had to borrow more in order to finance its expenditure and the fiscal deficit.
This information of the government having to borrow more than Rs 12 lakh crore again in 2021-22, came to light when the annual budget of the central government was presented on February 1. Due to this higher borrowing, the bond market immediately wanted a higher return from government securities.
The return (or yield to maturity as it is more popularly know) on 10-year government securities as of January 29, had stood at 5.95%. By February 22, the return had jumped to 6.2% or gone up by 25 basis points, in a matter of a few weeks. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.
The yield to maturity on a security is the annual return an investor can expect when he buys a security at a particular price, on a particular day and holds on to it till its maturity.
As the latest monetary policy report of the RBI released yesterday points out: “Yields spiked following the announcement of government borrowings of Rs12.05 lakh crore for 2021-22 and additional borrowing of Rs 80,000 crore for 2020-21.”
In May 2020, the government had announced that it would borrow a total of Rs 12 lakh crore in 2020-21. When the budget was presented, the government said that it would end up borrowing Rs 12.8 lakh crore or Rs 80,000 crore more.
At any given point of time, the financial system can only lend a given amount of money. When the demand for money goes up, it is but natural that the return expected by the lenders will also go up. This led to the bond market demanding a higher rate of return on government securities, pushing up the yields or returns on government securities.
How did this become a bother for the government? When the returns on existing government securities go up, the RBI has to offer higher rates of interest on the fresh financial securities that it plans to issue on behalf of the government to fund the fiscal deficit. This pushes up the interest bill of the government, which the government is trying to minimise.
Government securities are deemed to be the safest form of lending. Once returns on these securities go up, the interest rates in general across the economy tend to go up, which is not something that the RBI wants at this point of time. The hope is that lower interest rates will help the economy revive faster.
As the debt manager of the government, it’s the RBI’s job to offer the best possible deal to its main client. Hence, post the budget, the RBI got into the job quickly and to drive down returns on government securities launched an open market operation (OMO). As the monetary policy report points out: “Yields subsequently eased somewhat on the back of… the OMO purchases for an enhanced amount of Rs 20,000 crore on February 10, 2021.”
In an OMO, the RBI prints money and buys government securities from those institutions who are willing to sell them. The idea here is to pump more money into the financial system and in the process ensure that yields or returns on government securities go down.
With the GSAP, the RBI has just taken this idea forward. While the GSAP is not very different from the OMOs that the RBI carries out, it is more of an upfront commitment and clear communication from the RBI that it will do whatever it takes to ensure that yields on government securities don’t go up. Like between April and June, the RBI plans to print and pump Rs 1 lakh crore into the financial system.
Let me make a slight deviation here. In this case, the RBI is also indirectly financing the government’s fiscal deficit. As the debt manager for the government, the RBI sells fresh securities to raise money in order to help the government finance its fiscal deficit.
These securities are bought by various financial institutions. When they do this, they have handed over money to the RBI, which credits the government’s account with it. In the process, the financial institutions as a whole have that much lesser money to lend for the long-term.
By printing money and pumping it into the financial system, the RBI ensures that the money that financial institutions have available for lending for the long-term, doesn’t really go down or doesn’t go down as much,
Hence, in that sense, the RBI is actually indirectly financing the government borrowing. (It’s just buying older bonds and not newer ones directly). A reading of business press tells me that the bond market expects more money printing by the RBI during the course of the year. One particular estimate going around is that of more than Rs 3 lakh crore. In that sense, even if the RBI prints Rs 3 lakh crore, it will indirectly finance around a fourth of the government borrowing given that it is scheduled to borrow Rs 12.05 lakh crore in 2021-22.
Now getting back to the topic. Like in any OMO, while carrying out a GSAP operation, the RBI will print money and buy government securities. In the process, it will put money into the financial system. This will ensure that returns on government securities don’t go up. In the process, the government will end up borrowing at lower rates.
This is how the RBI plans to keeps its main customer happy. It needs to be mentioned here that with the second wave of covid spreading across the country, chances are economic recovery will take a backseat and the government will have trouble raising tax revenues like it did in 2020-21, the last financial year.
This might lead to increased borrowing on the government front. Increased borrowing without the RBI interfering will definitely lead to the bond market demanding higher returns from government securities. With the GSAP, the hope is that yields or returns on government securities will continue to remain low.
It is worth remembering that Shaktikanta Das’ three year term as the RBI Governor comes to an end later this year. Hence, at least until then, it makes sense for Das to keep Delhi happy.
Of course, the money printing leading to lower return on government securities, will also ensure that the interest you, dear reader, earn on your fixed deposits, will continue to remain low, and the real rate of interest after adjusting for the prevailing inflation, will largely be in negative territory.
As mentioned earlier, lending to the government is deemed to be the safest form of lending. And if that lending can be carried out at low rates, the other rates will also remain low. This is the cost of the RBI trying to help the government, the corporates and the individual borrowers. It comes at the cost of savers. This is interest that the savers would have otherwise earned.
It is as if the RBI is telling the savers, don’t have your money lying around in deposits. Chase a higher return. Buy stocks. Buy bitcoin.
If the RBI had let the interest rates find their own level, with the government borrowing more, the interest rates would have gone up and helped the savers earn a higher return on their deposits. This would have also encouraged consumption, especially among those individuals whose expenditure depends on interest income. The argument offered by economists over and over again is that lower interest rates lead to higher borrowing and faster economic recovery.
Let’s take a look at this in the case of bank lending to industry. As of February 2021, the total bank lending to industry stood Rs 27.86 lakh crore. As of February 2016, five years back, the total bank lending to industry had stood at Rs 27.45 lakh crore.
Over a period of five years, the net bank lending to industry has gone up by a minuscule Rs 40,731 crore or just 1.5%. Meanwhile, the interest rate on fresh rupee loans given by banks during the same period has fallen from 10.54% to 8.19%, a fall of 235 basis points.
So much for corporates borrowing more at lower interest rates. This is their revealed preference; the actions that they are taking and not the bullshit that they keep mouthing on TV and in the business media. Currently, the Indian corporate simply isn’t confident enough about the country’s economic future and that’s the reason for not borrowing and expanding, irrespective of the public posturing.
Anyway, the point is not that higher interest rates are required. But the point is that if the RBI did not intervene like it has been doing, by printing money and buying bonds, slightly higher interest rates which would put the real interest rate in positive territory, would have been the order of the day. And that would have been better than the prevailing situation. A little better for the savers about whom neither the RBI nor the government seems to be bothered about.
But then as I said earlier, the government is the RBI’s main customer these days. And that’s the long and the short of it.
The new monetary policy committee which met for the first time over the last two days has decided to keep the repo rate unmoved at 4%. Monetary policy committee is a committee which decides on the repo rate of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Repo rate is the interest rate at which RBI lends to banks and is expected to set the broad direction for interest rates in the overall economy.
The RBI has been trying to drive down the interest rates in the economy since January 2019. In January 2019, the repo rate was at 6.5%. Since then it has been cut by 250 basis points and is now at 4%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. This has had some impact in driving down fixed deposit interest rates of banks. Take a look at the following chart.
Source: ICICI Securities, October 3, 2020.
From the peak they achieved between March and June 2019, fixed deposit interest rates have fallen by 170 to 220 basis points. This in an environment where the inflation has been going up. In March 2019, inflation as measured by the consumer price index was at 2.9%. It had jumped slightly to 3.2% by June 2019. In August 2020, the latest data available for inflation as measured by the consumer price index, had jumped to 6.6%. Meanwhile, fixed deposit rates which were around 7-8%, are largely in the range of 4-6% now (of course, there are outliers to this).
Hence, inflation is greater than interest rates on fixed deposits, meaning the purchasing power of the money invested in fixed deposits is actually coming down.
In fact, interest rate on savings bank accounts, which in some cases was as high as 6-7%, has also come down. Take a look at the following chart.
Source: ICICI Securities, October 3, 2020.
Savings bank accounts now offer anywhere between 2.5-3%.
The fall in interest rates is not just because of the RBI cutting the repo rate. A bulk of this fall has happened post the covid breakout. Banks haven’t lent money post covid.
Between March 27 and September 25, the outstanding non-food credit of banks has fallen by 1.1% or Rs 1.1 lakh crore to Rs 102 lakh crore. This means that people and firms have been repaying their loans and net-net in the first six months of this financial year, banks haven’t given a single rupee of a fresh loan.
Banks give loans to Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice and wheat directly from the farmers. Once these loans are subtracted from overall lending by banks, what remains is non-food credit.
During the same period, the deposits of banks have risen by 5.1% or Rs 6.97 lakh crore to Rs 142.6 lakh crore. With people saving more, it clearly shows that the psychology of a recession is in place.
Banks have not been lending while their deposit base has been expanding at a rapid pace. The point being that banks are able to pay an interest on their deposits because they give out loans and charge a higher rate of interest on the loans than they pay on their deposits.
When this mechanism breaks down to some extent, as it has currently, banks need to cut interest rates on their deposits, given that they are not earning much on the newer deposits. This is bound to happen and accordingly, interest rates on fixed deposits have fallen.
While the supply of deposits has gone up, the demand for them in the form of loans, hasn’t. This has led to the price of deposits, which is the interest paid on them, falling.
But there is one more reason why interest rates have fallen. There is excess money floating around in the financial system. The RBI has printed money and pumped it into the financial system by buying bonds from financial institutions.
This excess money has also helped in driving down interest rates. While banks haven’t been able to lend at all in the first six months of the year, the government borrowing has gone through the roof. As the debt manager of the government, the RBI has printed and pumped money into the financial system to drive down the returns on government bond, in the process allowing the government to borrow at lower interest rates. Take a look at the following chart, which plots the returns (or yields) on 10-year bonds of the Indian government.
The yield on a government bond is the return an investor can earn if he continues to own the bond until maturity. The above chart clearly shows that as the government has borrowed more and more through the year, the interest rate at which it has been able to borrow money has come down, thanks to the RBI and its money printing.
Of course, with banks not lending on the whole, they are happy lending to the government. In fact, in his speech today, the RBI governor Shaktikanta Das said that the central bank planned to print and pump another Rs 1 lakh crore into the financial system in the days to come.
With more money expected to enter the financial system the 10-year government bond yield fell from 6.02% yesterday (October 8) to 5.94% today (October 9), a fall of 8 basis points during the course of the day.
The monetary policy committee also decided to keep the “accommodative stance as long as necessary”, with only one member opposing it. In simple English this means that the RBI will keep driving down interest rates 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.”
The assumption here is that as interest rates fall people will borrow and spend more and corporations will borrow and expand more. This will help the economy grow, jobs will be created and incomes will grow. While, this sounds good in theory, it doesn’t really play out exactly like that, at least not in an Indian context.
Let’s take a look at this pointwise.
1)A bulk of deposits in Indian banks are deposited by individuals. In 2017-18, the latest data for which a breakdown is available, individuals held around 55% of deposits in banks by value. This had stood at 45% in 2009-10 and has been constantly rising. Hence, it is safe to say that in 2020-21, the proportion of bank deposits held by individuals will clearly be more than 55%.
When interest rates on deposits (both savings and fixed deposits) go down individuals get hurt the most. There are senior citizens whose regular expenditure is met through interest on these deposits. When a deposit paying 8% matures and has to be reinvested at 5.5%, it creates a problem. Either the family has to cut down on consumption or start spending some of their capital (the money invested in the fixed deposit).
This also disturbs many people who use fixed deposits as a form of long-term saving. The vagaries of the stock market are not meant for everyone. Also, in the last decade returns from investing in stocks haven’t really been great.
2)When interest rates go down, the families referred to above cut down on consumption and do not increase it, as is expected with lower interest rates. This may not sound right to many people who are just used to economists, analysts, bureaucrats, corporates and fund managers, mouthing, lower interest rates leading to an increase in consumption all the time. But there is a significant section of people whose consumption does get hurt by lower interest rates.
3)It’s not just about bank interest rates going down. Returns on provident fund/pension funds which hold government bonds for long time periods until maturity and post office schemes (despite being higher than banks), also come down in the process.
4) Also, no corporate is going to invest just because interest rates are low right now. Corporates invest and expand when they see a future consumption potential. This is currently missing. Also, banks lending to industry peaked at 22.43% of the GDP in 2012-13. It fell to 14.28% of the GDP in 2019-20. During the period, interest rates have gone up and down, but corporate lending as a proportion of the GDP has continued to fall. So clearly increased borrowing by corporates is not just about interest rates.
But corporates love to constantly talk about high interest rates as a reason not to invest. This is just a way of driving down interest on their current debt.
“Sowing disorder by confusing issues is a tried-and-trusted, distressingly often successful routine by which stakeholders, official and private, plant the seeds of policy/regulation reversal in India.”
One can understand interest rates going down in an environment like the current one, but there is a flip side to it as well, which one doesn’t hear the experts talk about at all. Also, anyone has barely mentioned the excess liquidity in the financial system, which currently stands at Rs 3.9 lakh crore. Why is that? Let’s look at this pointwise.
1) The equity fund managers love it because with interest rates going down further, many investors will end up investing money in stocks despite very high price to earnings ratio that currently prevails. The price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index currently is at 34.7. This is a kind of level that has never been seen before.
But with post tax real returns from fixed deposits (after adjusting for inflation) in negative territory, many investors continue to bet on stocks, despite the lack of earnings growth.
2)The debt fund managers love it because interest rates and bond prices are negatively related. When interest rates come down, bond yields come down and this leads to bond prices going up. This means that the debt funds managed by these fund managers see capital gains and their overall returns go up. Hence, debt fund managers love lower interest rates.
3)Banks invest a large proportion of the deposits they gather into government bonds. When bond yields fall, bond prices go up. This leads to a higher profit for banks. This in an environment where banks aren’t lending. Hence, bankers love lower interest rates.
4)Corporates love lower interest rates at all points of time, irrespective of whether they want to borrow or not. I don’t think this needs to be explained.
5)The government loves low interest rates because it can borrow at lower rates. Second, with the stock market going up, it can sell a positive narrative. If the economy is doing so badly, why is the stock market doing well?
6)This leaves economists. Economists love lower interest rates because the textbooks they read, said so.
The question is do lower interest rates or interest rates make a difference when it comes to borrowing by an average Indian? Let’s take a look at non-housing retail borrowing from banks over the years. In 2007-08 it stood at 5.34% of the gross domestic product (GDP). In 2019-2020, it stood at an all-time high of 5.97% of GDP.
In a period of 12 years, non-housing retail borrowing from banks, has barely moved. What it tells us to some extent is that the idea of taking on a loan to buy something (other than a house), is still alien to many Indians.
So, the idea that interest rates falling leading to increased retail borrowing is a little shaky in the Indian context.
To conclude, today the RBI governor Shaktikanta Das gave a speech which was more than 4,000 words long. In this speech, the phrase fixed deposit interest rate did not appear even once.
A whole generation of savers is getting screwed (for the lack of a better word) and the RBI Governor doesn’t even bother mentioning it in his speech. The RBI seems to be constantly worried about the interest rate at which the government borrows.
A central bank which only bats for the government, corporates and bond market investors, is always and anywhere a bad idea.
Shaktikanta Das’ RBI is at the top of this bad idea.
One dollar was worth around Rs 77.6 in mid-April. Since then, the rupee has appreciated against the dollar and now one dollar is worth around Rs 73.5.
In a press release on August 31, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) explained the mystery of the appreciating rupee by saying: “the recent appreciation of the rupee is working towards containing imported inflationary pressures.”
Before analysing this statement, it is important to understand what it means. India’s imports are consumption oriented and not capital goods oriented. This can be gauged from the fact that non-oil, non-gold and non-silver imports, a very good indicator of consumer demand, moved from 55.8% of the total imports in 2011-12 to 69.7% in 2016-17. In 2019-20, these imports at 65.9% of total imports.
What this also tells us is that Indians prefer to buy imported goods than what is produced in India, wherever there was a choice. Their revealed preference is very clear on this front.
In this scenario, when the rupee appreciates against the dollar, the cost of imports comes down. Let’s say a product is imported for $10. At one dollar being worth Rs 77.6, it costs Rs 776. At one dollar being worth Rs 73.5, it costs Rs 735. There is a clear fall in price as the rupee appreciates. This helps control inflation or the overall rate of price rise.
As the RBI pointed out in its monetary policy report released in April earlier this year: “An appreciation of the INR by 5 per cent could moderate inflation by around 20 basis points.” One basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage.
An appreciating rupee is basically an indicator of excessive dollar inflows into India. When these dollars come into India, they need to be converted into rupees. This pushes up the demand for rupees, leading to the rupee appreciating.
One way of preventing this is the RBI buying the dollars that are coming in by selling rupees, in order to ensure that there are enough rupees in the system and in the process, the rupee doesn’t appreciate against the dollar or at least appreciates at a gradual pace. The RBI is not doing this or to put it more specifically isn’t doing as much of this as it was in the past.
This, as the RBI has explained is being done to control imported inflation.
The inflation as measured by the consumer price index, between April and July this year, was at 6.7%. Core inflation which ignores food, fuel and light items, was at 5.1%, with non-core inflation being at 8.6%. The high non-core inflation was on account of food inflation being at 9.8% between April and July. RBI has no control over food inflation.
Also, food inflation has been primarily on account of supply chains breaking down on account of the spread of the covid-pandemic. So, is the RBI getting too desperate, is a question well-worth asking here.
An appreciating rupee benefits imports and importers. This in a scenario where the government of the day has been talking about India becoming atmnirbhar or promoting self-reliance. In order to promote this, higher-tariffs on imports, like a higher customs duty on specific-imports, has been the way to go.
As the late Arun Jaitely said in the 2018-19 budget speech: “In this budget, I am making a calibrated departure from the underlying policy in the last two decades, wherein the trend largely was to reduce the customs duty.” This has been the policy stance of the government over the last few years.
But all this gets undone if the rupee is allowed to appreciate against the dollar. It makes imports cheaper and domestic producers will find it even more difficult to compete against the imports. Hence, this goes against the entire idea of atmnirbharta or encouraging domestic producers. It also goes against the idea of getting foreign companies to produce within India. If the rupee keeps appreciating they might just like the idea of importing most of the inputs and then assembling the end product in India.
This is quite weird, given that since Shaktikanta Das took over as the governor of the RBI, India’s central bank has more or less acted on the instructions of the government, rarely having a mind of its own. That makes me wonder what is really happening here?
Having said that, this is good news for the Indian consumer. As David Boaz writes in The Libertarian Mind: “The point of economic activity is consumption. We produce in order to consume… For each participant in international trade, the goal is to acquire consumption goods as cheaply as possible.”
So, is the RBI really batting for the Indian consumer in the aftermath of the economy being hit by the covid-pandemic? Or is there something more to the entire thing? On that your guess is as good as mine.