Too easy AND too tight – the RBI’s counterproductive stop-go policies

Only a couple of days ago I was complaining that the Turkish (and the Polish) central bank(s) have been intervening in the currency markets. My complains of the Turkish central bank’s fear-of-floating and what seemed to be politically motivated monetary operations were then followed by the Brazilian central bank that hiked interest rates – officially to curb inflationary pressures, but what to me very much looked like an effort to prop up the Brazilian real.

It indeed seems like there is a pattern emerging in particularly in Emerging Markets. The latest central bank to jump on the FX intervention bandwagon is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). This is from Reuters:

“The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced measures late on Monday to curb the rupee’s decline by tightening liquidity and making it costlier for banks to access funds from the central bank.

The RBI raised the Marginal Standing Facility (MSF) rate and Bank Rate each by 200 basis points to 10.25 percent, capped the amount up to which banks can borrow or lend under its daily liquidity window and announced a sale of government securities through an open market operation.

The RBI said total funds available under its repo window will be capped at 1 percent of banks’ deposits – roughly 750 billion rupees – from Wednesday. It announced a 120 billion rupee sale of government bonds for Thursday.

The central bank does not set a target for the rupee, which hit a record low of 61.21 to the dollar last week, but it does take measures to manage volatility”

It is very hard to be impressed by the RBI’s de facto currency targeting as there is hardly any economic arguments for  the RBI’s actions, but we can safely conclude whatever motivated the RBI have just implemented significant monetary tightening.

Too easy AND too tight – it’s called stop-go monetary policy

I have earlier argued that there might be arguments for tightening monetary policy in India. Hence, since 2009 nominal GDP has risen much sharper than the earlier NGDP-trend of around 12% NGDP growth.  The graph below illustrates this.

NGDP India July 2013Furthermore, there is there is nothing “optimal” about a 12% NGDP growth path. In fact I believe that the RBI if anything rather should target an NGDP growth path around 7-8% (as I have argued earlier).

The problem with the RBI’s recent actions is not necessarily the decision to tighten monetary policy per se, but rather the in fashion it is done.

The RBI’s decision has clearly not been based on a transparent and rule based monetary framework.

Hence, after years of high NGDP growth and high inflation the RBI suddenly slams the brakes. And mind you not to hit an NGDP level target or an inflation target for that matter, but to “stabilize” the currency.

The result of this currency “stabilization” might be that the RBI will be able to curb the sell-off in the rupee (I doubt it), but we can be pretty sure that the cost of this “operation” will likely be a fairly sharp slowdown in Indian real (and nominal) GDP growth. You have to choose – either you have a “stable” currency or stable macroeconomic conditions. I fear that the RBI has just sacrificed macroeconomic stability in a ill-fated attempt to stabilize the currency – at least if the RBI insist to continue the policy of FX intervention.

In a sense the RBI has been pursuing both too easy monetary policies – too high NGDP growth and inflation – and at the same time too tight monetary policy in the sense of an abrupt monetary contraction to prop up the rupee. This is the core of the problem – the RBI’s counterproductive stop-go policies.

The way forward – a completely freely floating rupee and 8% NGDP target 

In my view the RBI urgently needs give up its policy of fiddling with the currency and instead let the rupee float completely freely and instead announce an target on the nominal GDP level.

In my view the historical trend of 12% NGDP growth is too high and a lower NGDP growth target of 8% seems to be more appropriate. The RBI should hence announce that it gradually will slow NGDP growth to 8% over a five period. It is important that this should be a level target. Hence, if growth is faster than 11% in 2014 then it is important that NGDP growth will have to be even slower in the next four years. That is exactly the idea with a level target – you should not allow bygones-to-be-bygones. After 2018 the RBI will keep NGDP on 8% growth path.

Such a policy will ensure a lot more nominal stability than historically has been the case and therefore also very likely significantly increase macroeconomic stability.

Furthermore, a side effect will that the rupee likely will be more stable and predictable than under the present stop-go regime as FX volatility to a very large extent tend to be a result of monetary disorder.

A serious need for kick-starting economic reforms

There is no doubt that India seriously needs nominal stability, but there also is also a massive need for structural reforms in India. I think this story (quoted from Bloomberg) tells you everything you need to know about the extent of harmful and unnecessary government intervention in the Indian economy:

“For more than 100 years across the 19th and 20th centuries, its gnomic messages, worked into Morse code and out into language again, then delivered by postmen, connected human beings in faraway places. It announced births, marriages and deaths; called soldiers home from war or announced their demises to their families (or changed the course of the war itself); confirmed job offers or remittances to anxious and impatient souls. The voice of history whenever it was in haste, it was stoic by nature — concealing waves of emotion under its impassive, attenuated syntax — and easily available to rich and poor, in city and village.

In India, it was installed by the British as a way of administratively and militarily linking up the vast reaches of the subcontinent. But it became one of the engines of the freedom movement, a way for the Indian migrant to keep up a tenuous link to the world he had left far behind. The Indian word for it was “taar,” or wire, invoking an image more concrete than the English “telegraph.” (The “wire,” in English, was claimed by news media services.) Long after the rest of the world had moved on to more advanced technologies, the humble telegraph continued to enjoy great currency in India, before the onset of the digital revolution began to chip away at its hegemony. But the end has been in sight for some years now.

With the explosion of the mobile-phone revolution in the last decade (described recently in “The Great Indian Phone Book“), the telegraph service began for the first time to appear anachronistic. Text messages sent from mobile phones began to make the taar service seem quaint, even to rural users. This weekend, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, the state-run company that runs the system, is finally set to wind down its telegraph service for good, just as Western Union decided in 2006 that it was over for its telegrams in the U.S. Almost 16 decades after a member of the Indian public sent a telegram for the first time in 1855, the telegram will finally give up the ghost in one of its last surviving redoubts.

The Indian telegraph service still processes about 5,000 telegrams each day (most of them government notifications).

It is truly bizarre that a developing country like India until this day has continued to have a government run telegraph company, but I think it tells you a lot about how extreme the level of government intervention in the Indian economy still is.

In the 1990s growth was kick-started by a number of supply side reforms. However, over the past decade speed of reforms have been much more slower and in some area reforms have even been scaled back.

In this regard it should be noted that inflation has been stubbornly high – around 7-8% (GDP deflator) – since 2009. But at the same nominal GDP growth has slowed. This to me is an indication that while monetary policy has indeed become tighter India has also at the same time seen a deterioration of supply side conditions. The result has been a fairly sharp slowdown in real GDP growth in the same period.

I think it is quite unclear what is potential real GDP growth in India, but I think it likely is closer to 5-6% than to 8-10%. This would seems to be a quite low trend-growth given the low level of GDP/capita in India and India’s trend-growth seems to be somewhat lower than that of China.

Concluding, while a monetary regime change certainly is needed in India serious structural reforms are certainly also needed. The best place to start would be to get rid of India’s insanely high trade tariffs and generally opening up the economy significantly.

Update: s shorter edition of this blog post has also been published at financeasia.com. See here.

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7 Comments

  1. You might want to mention fiscal idiocy too. Price controls, high consumer subsidies, and with both central and state governments running deficits (not less than 8% of GDP combined over the last 5 years). The current account’s in deficit too, for the last 8 years. The twin deficits definitely suggest too high NGDP growth. I think the RBI knows this, but they’ve had to keep the spigots on because the financial system is rickety. There have been recurrent liqudity crunches since the Great Recession.

    I’ve been a Rupee bear for six years now – sad to see it come to fruition.

    Reply
    • Thanks Hishamh,

      I very much agree that the twin deficit indicates that NGDP growth has been excessive. Capital and currency controls in India are likely also important here. Needless to say they should be scrapped as well.

      I also agree with the worries over the state of the financial system, but there is little monetary policy can do about that other than to provide nominal stability.

      I generally agree with your bearish view on the rupee. However, if a 8% NGDP target was implemented it would very likely be supportive for the rupee.

      Reply
  2. I think it’s easier said than done to let the rupee float absolutely freely. India is a macroeconomic and structural disaster in theory. Investor sentiment is more herd-like than anywhere else and the composition of the trade balance is a clear indicator of what trouble a fast-sliding currency can lead to.

    With shifting global sentiment and hot money flowing out, a rupee in free-fall would have drastic balance sheet effects on corporates with dollar liabilities. There’s a clear trade-off here, but swinging one way or the other with monetary policy, in this exceptional case, might just be the wrong thing to do.

    Reply
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