A new government is on the anvil and the hopes and aspirations of the masses would need to be given close attention. If there is one issue of overriding concern, it is inflation.
There is unanimity that inflation must be tackled, but unfortunately, the wide body of policymakers, politicians, civil servants, opinion makers, economists, analysts and industry all believe that the solution to inflation is growth and that a tight money policy militates against growth and thereby causes inflation. It is argued that food inflation cannot be tackled by monetary policy.
The Urjit Patel Committee Report The Urjit Patel Report on ‘ Strengthening the Monetary Policy Framework’ has provided yeoman service by taking an unequivocal stand that the first step is to shift the monetary policy indicator to the Consumer Price Index ( CPI).
The criticism of the report is that food items have a 50 per cent weightage in the CPI and that the RBI, by focussing on the CPI, is using an indicator it cannot control. The critics miss the point that the CPI better tracks the consumption pattern of the masses.
Moreover, it is not generally appreciated that food inflation invariably degenerates into generalised inflation. Generalised inflation is, and always is, a monetary phenomenon and the right instrument for tackling inflation is monetary policy. Of course, critics of monetary policy will no doubt resort to meaningless labelling of such an approach as ‘ monetarist.’ In India, there is twisted understanding and a tight monetary policy is identified as a ‘ monetarist’ approach. To earn the label ‘ monetarist’, the RBI would need to limit the expansion of money, at the present time, to say five per cent per annum. Given the 13- 14 per cent annual monetary expansion at the present time, the RBI just does not qualify to be considered as following a ‘ monetarist’ policy.
The inflation- targeting debate Critics of the RBI argue that it is veering to inflation targeting and that such an approach is being discarded the world over. The Urjit Patel Committee has set out that inflation should be kept within a rate of eight per cent by January 2015 and six per cent by January 2016.
Thereafter, the inflation rate should be maintained in the range of four per cent+/- two per cent.
The criticism of the Urjit Patel Report, if at all, should be that the inflation range set out in the report is too permissive. But none of the critics of the RBI have taken such a stance in the past and none of the critics argue today that the RBI monetary policy has not been tight enough.
Relevance of real rates of interest To assess whether monetary policy is appropriate, it is necessary to look at real rates of interest i. e.
nominal interest rates adjusted for inflation. The latest CPI for April 2014 shows a year- on- year inflation rate of 8.59 per cent. As against this, the policy repo rate is eight per cent ( i. e. the rate at which banks borrow overnight from the RBI against the collateral of government securities).
Again, the term- repo rate, generally for 14 days, ranges up to 8.5 per cent. Given the present inflation rate, the RBI policy rates are negative or zero. As such, the criticism of the RBI should not be that monetary policy is too tight, but rather that it is not tight enough.
Who does inflation hurt ? It is incontrovertible that inflation hurts the weakest segments the most and hence, the best antipoverty programme is the control of inflation.
There is no trade- off between inflation and growth in the long run and even in the short run, such a trade- off is doubtful.
The anti- RBI lobby, which pressures for an easy monetary policy, is chasing a mirage. All that such a policy would do is to hurt the poor. If hurting the poor is a sin, advocates of an easy monetary policy are the sinners of society. I do not tire of repeating the words of the sage economist Professor P R Brahmananda: “ Not caring about inflation is like going into battle without caring for the wounded, the dying and the dead.” What should be RBI’s stance on June 3, 2014? Shortly after the new government is formed, the RBI monetary policy will be announced on June 3, 2014. If there is an avalanche of capital inflows, the RBI should reduce RBI accommodation and undertake outright sales of government securities. Governor Rajan deserves to be lauded for making it clear that the interest rate is set by him and for sustainable growth, we have to bring down inflation.
As Jiddu Krishnamurti said: “ If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come out of it, because the answer is not separate from the problem.” ( Thought for the Day, Free Press Journal May 12, 2014).