By- Ashok Handoo :By not reducing any of the key rates in its third-quarter review of the monetary policy, the Reserve Bank has sent a clear signal to commercial banks that they need to reduce their lending rates and make cheaper credit available to the customers. RBI is clearly of the view that banks have yet to pass on the benefits of the previous cuts in interest rates announced by it. Obviously, the Reserve Bank is not happy with the response of the banks, particularly private and foreign banks, to the initiatives taken by it so far. It feels there is enough scope for banks to do more.
As it is, the Reserve Bank in a space of just one quarter brought down the repo rate (the rate at which RBI lends overnight funds to banks) from 9 to 5.5 percent. The reverse repot rate (the rate at which RBI accepts deposits from banks) was brought down to 4 percent, what the RBI Governor Dr. D. Subbarao described as “historically lowest level”. But as he pointed out it’s “transmission in the credit market has so far been subdued”. RBI firmly believes that it’s policy easing had allowed banks considerable room to respond more actively which has not happened. It has thus adopted a wait and watch policy for the time being, to monitor the response from the banks and give them more time.
The bankers, on the other hand, feel that they have responded to the extent possible. They argue that the average cost of funds to them is still high and lending and borrowing rates can come down only when the fund costs come down. Some even expressed disappointment at the RBI “holding back it’s activism” in reducing the key rates to make cheaper funds available to them. But by and large, bankers agree that the RBI policy is on expected lines.
Through its earlier initiatives the RBI has infused liquidity of over Rs. 4 lakh crore into the system improving the liquidity situation, significantly.
It is not that the doors for further reduction in key rates have been closed. On the contrary, the RBI has made it clear that it will respond to any adverse development. So, more cuts outside the policy can happen anytime. The current pause could only be a temporary thing.
Another message that the RBI has given is that there is a clear evidence of deeper consequences of the global downturn on the Indian economy which can lead to its further slowdown. Industrial activity, particularly in the manufacturing and the infrastructural sectors, is decelerating. The services sector too, which has been the prime engine of growth for the last several years, will slowdown mainly in construction, transport, hotels, tourism and trade sectors. . The consequences have been more pronounced after October 2008 which has led the RBI to revise its GDP growth projection for the current financial year to 7 percent against the earlier 7.7 percent. In fact the Survey conducted by the 13 professional forecasters has put it at 6.8 percent.
That is all the more reason for the banks to respond more vigorously to the rate cuts already effected.
At the same time , there are two positive factors at play. One, the inflation rate has been falling sharply for the last 10 months to 5.6 % with only a small aberration in the latest figure which is attributed to the Truckers strike during that period. The current projections are that the rate will fall further to about 3 percent by March end, though it is reflected more in the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) than in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).That is primarily because of the fall in international crude oil prices, steel and select food items. A fall in demand has also played some role in this.
The second positive factor is the expected increase in consumption demand in the days ahead, reflecting rise in basic exemption limits in tax and tax slabs, the 6th pay commission award, debt waiver to farmers, and the expenditure that would be incurred in the run up to elections in a few months from now.
All this will allow an elbow room to the government to cut the key rates further, if the situation so demands.
The RBI has also warned that the fiscal measures to boost growth and lower revenue receipts could sharply widen the fiscal deficit from the earlier estimate of 2.5 percent to 5.9 % .The combined shortfall of the centre and the state governments could come to 8.5 %, or even more.
As the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council pointed out the other day, both the saving and investment rates are likely to be lower in the current fiscal. The saving rates may fall due to larger negative savings of the Government. The investment rate will be less by 2.5 percentage points compared to the previous year, due to financing constraints facing Indian enterprises.
The widening trade deficit is a matter of concern as is the moderation in capital inflows. Though the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has shown an increase in the current financial year the portfolio investment has recorded a substantial outflow. The institutional investors have sold about $10 billion of their investment in Indian companies to cover losses in their home markets.
With Indian economy getting more and more integrated with the world economy and the US, Europe and Japan already experiencing recession, India can not remain totally insulated. A less than optimistic sentiment in the economy is therefore quite natural. As the Prime Minster pointed out India’s economic problems would not be over in the current year and could spill over into 2009-10, but the “Government will continue its efforts for a supporting environment next year also. Both monetary and fiscal policy will have to be tailored.” The Deputy Charmin of the Planning Commission Shri Montek Singh Ahluwalia has also spoken of innovative interim measures. These include floating of tax- free bonds ‘to provide refinancing facilities to banks to encourage them to offer long term debts” to companies investing in infrastructure sectors which have long gestation periods.
It is a matter of satisfaction that everybody agrees that the Indian economy will recover earlier than the world economy, once things begin to improve.