Thursday, November 3, 2011

The focus should shift from Mumbai to New Delhi

The sources of India's most recent bout of inflation, as pointed out in a series of excellent recent speeches and papers by RBI officials (see also Amol Agarwal here), may be rooted in structural factors like demand shocks (increased protein consumption) and supply constraints. The continued fiscal accommodation, especially by way of the expansion of the mandate of policies like NREGS, may have contributed towards amplifying the upward pressures.

This means that monetary policy may have limited traction with restraining inflationary pressures, beyond cooling the economy and restraining growth in aggregate demand. Any further changes in monetary policy can only have marginal impacts, especially since the markets have already priced in the RBI's firm commitment to rein in inflation by lowering aggregate demand and thereby slowing down the economy. Blaming the RBI for taking only baby steps or being too predictable with its interest rate increases or even giving up its shock value (the recent announcement that it may not hike rates in December) looks unconvincing.

Translated into English, all this effectively means that the focus of attention on inflation fighting has to shift from RBI to the Government. It means that governments, both states and center, will have to initiate steps to ease supply-side constraints - infrastructure bottlenecks and agriculture production capacity. An aggressive program of investments in these areas is immediately required. Fiscally constrained governments need private sector assistance in many of these areas if there is to be any meaningful impact to ease supply constraints. The very nature and dynamics of their interventions also means that the expectations for immediate outcomes that we associate with RBI's monetary policy actions should be shelved.

It is interesting that during the Great Recession and the economic slowdown that followed the sub-prime crisis, governments across the world have been largely missing in action. Almost expecting this, public debates have been focussed on getting monetary authorities to pull economies out of their current mess. In the developed economies, central banks have indulged in monetary accommodation through unprecedented quantitative easing policies.

In India, the focus on its central bank has been for a different reason. Unlike the developed economies, the problem here is an overheating economy which has unleashed inflationary pressures. Accordingly, attention has been on the RBI to use monetary policy to deliver the magic bullets to lower inflation and boost growth. But, as aforementioned, this strategy has serious limitations and will not yield results. RBI can at best buy time by cooling the economy and buying time for the government to get its act in order. Only governments can fulfill the growth creation and sustaining role effectively.

The only issue at debate is whether the RBI should pause or not. The fundamental objective of the 13 consecutive rate hikes has been to rein in an over-heating economy. This growth restricting objective has to be weighed against the more important medium to long term goal of getting the economy to quickly expand its potential output and productive capacity. This requires massive investments in infrastructure and food production, both by the governments and the private sector.

Has the interest rate crossed the threshold where it has started adversely affecting these investments? This should be the critical question guiding RBI's monetary policy decisions in the months ahead. As for inflation, it is time for New Delhi to assume centerstage and take the "inflation bull" by its horns.

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