The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is under considerable pressure to reduce its benchmark interest rates in its upcoming monetary policy meeting. However, prudent monetary policy needs to keep rates at the current level rather than a premature easing for various reasons.
First, the present high inflation problem was caused by supply-side constraints combined with demand-side factors induced by rural wage growth. Over the past few months, rural wage growth has moderated and the government is also prudent and is not increasing MSPs. This has eased demand-side pressures and hence the recent inflation strength can be attributed primarily to supply side factors.
Our strategy to counter supply-side inflation has been to boost supply through increased infrastructure investment coupled with measures to improve ease of doing business. To make it work, we must let supply overtake the latent demand by such a margin that any easing thereafter should unleash a positive demand catch-up spiral. The risk with a premature rate cut is that it creates demand even before supply-side catches up, in turn pushing the inflation trajectory higher. Therefore it is better to err on the side of caution and reduce rates later rather than risk another inflation spurt.
Second, higher interest rates combined with lower inflation augur well for positive real savings return. This has twin benefits. On one hand it redirects household incomes away from consumption into savings; and on the other hand it will creates a corpus of domestic saving that can be re-invested into the economy making Indian investments less dependent and more resilient to external / global shocks.
Third, high asset prices, particularly real estate prices, are a more substantive burden on economic growth than interest rates. A premature cut can re-invigorate the real estate cycle, adding to the countries financial vulnerability. As the BIS has stated, central banks should focus not just on the business cycle, but also the financial cycle. Higher real interest rate will maintain a pressure on asset prices thereby creating beneficial conditions for sustainable economic growth.
Fourth, higher interest rates (more capital inflows) coupled with exchange rate sterilization measures are helping the RBI create a war chest to counter any external currency shocks. This was indeed the learning from the South East Asian crisis of 1990s – make hay while the sun shines. The RBI, rightly so, expects the near future to be tumultuous in light of US Fed tightening and changes in divergent monetary policies in developed countries. Higher rates will ensure that the RBI has enough dry powder in case of a global economic shock.
In sum, calling for the RBI to cut interest rates – just when the inflation battle is being won- is premature, short-sighted and tantamount to declaring a victory even before the enemy has been defeated. In a world where global central banks are creating conditions for future instability, the RBI should remain a beacon of stability.