Repo Rate and Inflation

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has designated the weighted average overnight call money rate as the operating target of its monetary policy and the repo rate as the only independently varying policy rate in order to more accurately signal the monetary policy stance. So while cash reserve ratio (CRR), statutory liquidity ratio (SLR), market stabilization scheme (MSS) etc. are all important tools, the policy lever of RBI that is always in the spotlight is the repo rate. This is the rate at which banks borrow from the central bank blah blah…

A lot has been said about RBI’s role and its effectiveness in fighting inflation. Rate hikes are common knowledge to all in the country by now concerning that they affect people with loans in their lives. Interest rates have been rising in India (and all the emerging economies) and I had an investment thesis of catching banking stocks when the interest rate cycle turned. Interest rate senstive sectors like automobiles, real estate, banking etc. will get a breather if the rates turn. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe has however ensured that the hawks continue to circle above the Indian economic landscape. Fat chance that we may see a rate reversal. Indeed, the banking sector is badly mauled and it certainly does not look to be in a hurry to recover. I need to figure out what to do with my investment positions in Axis Bank and HDFC Bank – and towards that end I tried to read up and form an opinion on inflation, rates and their cycles. The below chart came out.

If you look at the period after mid-2008, there is a very perceptible negative correlation betweeen inflation measures and the repo rates set by RBI. I am saying correlation here. As you know, correlation does not automatically imply causality. I have shaded the three time periods of recent times where we can discern some sort of a clear monetary stand taken by the RBI. The light blue band is a period of declining repo rates. I have added a 12 period moving average of the monthly inflation rates (taken from ycharts) to show trending inflation information. As you can see, during this period, the inflation rate increased as the rate fell. Then the light yellow period (Nov’09 – May’10) shows the continuation of the trend started in the previous phase. The RBI further reduced the repo rate down to 4.75% towards the end of this phase – with inflation continuously rising while all this was taking place. Then finally, the green band, which we seem to be in today as well. Here, we all know the sequential repo rate increases affected by the RBI. The inflation rate did appear to have fallen from a high of 14%. But it is still high at 9.5% – 10.0%. So many experts (and some vested interests) have argued that the RBI should stop fiddling with the policy rates since these measures have not been successful in taming the beast. My point here is that inflation is whatever it is, but can you confidently say that the situation could not have been any worse than what it is today?

I guess, my view is that till this point successive repo rate increases have helped in “controlling” inflation. They may not have brought inflation back to the comfort zone of 5% – 6%, but they have definitely put some brakes on the juggernaut. Beyond this point, any further increases in the policy rates may actually be detrimental to the economy (from the inflation point of view)! Beyond a point, if rates continue to rise, they will do their bit to strangulate the supply side by making it uneconomical to produce. While you may smile when you read about farmers in Andhra Pradesh striking work, the fact of the matter is that very high rates do push out payback times, reduce rates of return on economic activity and shut down the cogs of industry. I would not be surprised if the increasing levels of cash balances with Indian companies is linked to them not finding any profitable incentive to produce/invent and invest. So, my hunch is that RBI will/should stop raising rates now. However, my holding in Axis Bank and HDFC Bank is still a millstone around my neck since a pause in raising rates does not mean that the central bank will start reducing them! It could be a good 6 months (if not more) before we start seeing a reversal of the current policy regime.

So what about inflation? Maybe we hope that foreign policymakers and governments are more adept than ours. FIIs run our stock markets by proxy anyways. If the cost of fuel starts falling and INR goes up (read as: USD depreciates since Americans would want Germans to continue buying American exports) then perhaps inflation will take care of itself. This will happen inspite of our Government which has done absolutely nothing to control the supply side pressure to inflation. In fact, people posture and talk as if the RBI is responsible for the supply side as well! We are in a hot air balloon now. Lets enjoy the expansive expensive view from the top. 🙂


About Kaushal

One Response to Repo Rate and Inflation

  1. Sandew says:

    can you juxtapose Nifty chart with repo rate


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