A fine balance between external headwinds and domestic inflation

The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on expected lines increased the repo rate by 50 basis points to 5.90% with a cumulative rate hike of 190 basis points during this rate hiking cycle starting with an off-cycle 40 basis points hike in May. From the Governor’s message it was clear that the MPC was decisive to act swiftly to minimise the spillover impact of “the third major shock” of aggressive monetary policy tightening of advanced economy (AE) central banks post Covid-19 and Russia-Ukraine crisis. Increase in policy rate was needed for a few factors. 
India’s retail inflation measured in terms of consumer price index (CPI) remained higher than RBI’s upper tolerance band of 6% for the eighth straight month till August 2022. Food inflation is expected to stay higher due to higher cereal prices. Wheat production got affected due to heat waves in the northern part of India earlier this year and now lower rice production during the kharif season will weigh on prices. Uneven spatial distribution of monsoon adversely impacted prices of perishable items such as tomatoes. Moreover, with the service sector getting back strong, the pricing power is coming back that could fuel inflation. Nonetheless, lower commodity and crude prices will cool off inflation a bit. These factors will keep inflation above MPC’s target of 6% for most part of FY23 and thus a 50 basis points increase in repo was appropriate. 
On the growth front, India’s economy is resilient. Credit growth of SCB’s remained robust and increased by 16.2% in the earlier fortnight. GST collections remained above INR 1.4tn for the sixth consecutive month till August. Manufacturing PMI stayed resilient at 56.2 in August with increased capacity utilization in manufacturing. Service sector indicators such as rail freight traffic, domestic air passenger traffic, toll collection show strong resilience. Moreover, kharif sowing being higher by about 1.7% of normal sowing; agriculture remains resilient. Both consumption and investment demand are showing signs of traction. Vehicle sales increased by 20% in August and now on a 3-year CAGR basis up by 1.7%. The rate hiking cycle will not have a very significant adverse impact on India’s growth outlook which allows MPC to deliver bigger hikes.
Real repo rate that is adjusted for inflation is still negative and that will dwindle household savings. Gross household financial savings decreased to 10.8% in FY22 from 15.9% in FY21. It is expected that the MPC will continue to increase the repo rate to take it to neutral level to boost savings. 
MPC retained its stance of “withdrawal of accommodation” despite banking system liquidity remaining in deficit on some days recently. This is the correct approach since the government is expected to spend higher on capex and subsidies, liquidity will come to the banking system and RBI will have to mop-up excess liquidity to bring it to neutral level. Government has about INR 3.5tn cash balance with RBI. 
Going forward repo rate is expected to become the operating rate since eventually RBI will go in liquidity injection mode. This will see market rates moving higher across tenures. RBI is expected to continue its forex market intervention to stabilize volatility in rupee and outflow of funds. Forex reserves even though decreased but still remain favourable compared to the peer economies which gives RBI the room to do forex intervention.   

(Dr. Sudarshan Bhattacharjee is currently the Principal Economist of Yubi (CredAvenue). He has 15 years of professional experience cutting across different domains like banks, ratings, regulator, think tank, etc. In his previous role he worked as a Senior Economist in ICICI Bank. Dr. Bhattacharjee has published various research papers in national and international journals. He holds a PhD from University of Mumbai)