Investment Must Lead The Way For Economic Revival

The Reserve Bank of India was once again at the center of a expectations led rally — that it would cut repo rates on October 30, while announcing its second quarter review of the 2012-13 monetary policy. Instead, RBI cut the cash reserve ratio (CRR). Here is my op-ed piece in The Economic Times, carried the next day:
The rate cut lobby should be worried for two reasons. The first one is obvious: despite their high-decibel clamour, RBI governor D Subbarao has not relented an inch. He is steadfast about holding interest rates till the rate of inflation blinks first.

In short, his message remains unchanged: interest rates won’t budge till inflation does. But the second reason is far more worrisome. It depicts a state of economic stagnation that even deep rate cuts cannot remedy. The pointers lie in the second quarter review of the 2012-13 monetary policy.

Subbarao once again cut the cash reserve ratio (CRR, a mandatory provision that requires banks to maintain a fixed portion of their deposits with RBI) by 25 basis points, down to 4.25%, releasing an additional Rs 17,500 crore of funds into the system, which the central bank fondly hopes will result in credit growth to productive sectors.

This is the fourth time in the last one year that RBI has cut CRR; in fact, in the last 12 months, CRR has been pared down by 175 basis points. That is not all. Further, the central bank has cut statutory liquidity ratio, another mandated reserve that requires banks to invest a portion of their deposits in government securities, cut the benchmark repo rate by 50 bps in April and made liquidity available through export refinance schemes. Outside the policy framework, the central bank has been conducting open-market operations regularly and daily liquidity adjustment exercises.

It is, therefore, a bit surprising that despite the RBI’s repeated emphasis on pumping additional rupees into the economy, attention seems to be still focused on petitioning for a cut in the repo rate, rather than worrying about drying up liquidity. And, significantly, this recurring deficit in liquidity is symptomatic of another economic crisis: slowing down of economic growth.

Apologists will argue that cutting rates is probably the only elixir for reviving growth. If that is indeed true, then the economies of US, Europe and Japan should have been growing at supersonic speeds, given their near-zero nominal interest rates. Look at the malady — the liquidity shortage — first.

The policy document of Tuesday states, “The wedge between deposit growth and credit growth, in conjunction with the build up of the Centre’s cash balances from mid-September and the drainage of liquidity on account of festival-related step up in currency demand, have kept the systemlevel liquidity deficit high, with adverse implications for the flow of credit to productive sectors and for the overall growth of the economy going forward.”

Data released by RBI on October 26 shows that aggregate deposits with the banking system has grown (on a year-on-year basis) by only 13.9%, compared to 17.5% growth in the previous comparable period. However, credit has grown by 15.9% (against 19.5% in the previous period).

While the wedge between deposit and credit growth seems to have narrowed during Q2 2012-13, compared to the wide gap that existed during Q1, the difference is still cause for worry. For one, the slowing down deposits growth is a direct manifestation of the slowing down savings rate in the economy. The continuing high inflation rates have dampened real interest rates, making financial instruments (such as fixed deposits) relatively unattractive compared to physical assets (such as gold).

Alower savings rate is bound to translate into a lower investment rate. It is by now common knowledge that one of the ways to kick-start growth in the economy is to rejuvenate the investment climate. In fact, some of the government’s recent policy pronouncements have focused on improving the pace of investments in the economy. And, without the investment rate looking up, the savings rate is unlikely to improve, thereby worsening the feedback loop.

Therefore, the RBI policy document makes it clear that the recent spurt of feel-good announcements is not enough to warrant a cut in interest rates. The statement does not mince words, “…recent policy announcements…that have positively impacted sentiment, need to be translated into effective action to convert sentiment into concrete investment decisions.”

In the meantime, the CRR cut is not only expected to boost liquidity but is also likely to have some salutary effect on lending rates as well. While the RBI is loath to directly signal lower interest rates in the system right away, lest they rekindle inflationary expectations once again, the CRR cut is an apt signalling tool: it might still induce some banks to lower their lending rates, depending on each individual bank’s balance sheet. This way, Governor Subbarao can still tick both the inflation and growth boxes on his to-do list.


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