RBI hikes policy rates by 25 bps, surprises on timing

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in the post market hours on Friday evening hiked its benchmark policy rates repo and reverse repo by 25 basis points (bps) in order to check the surging pace of price hike and cushion inflationary expectations which have been threatening to move out of central bank’s control.


The hike while was well anticipated, the timing of the announcement was an absolute surprise. Analysts have been anticipating a mid-cycle hike right from the release of central bank’s annual monetary policy statement in April. However, the euro zone sovereign debt crisis and the recent liquidity crunch have been weighing on the side of keeping status quo on policy stance.


The expectations of a mid-cycle action increased after the inflation data released in middle of May showed wholesale prices index (WPI) reaching double digit levels. The RBI however remained silent. Again when the empowered group of ministers (EGoM) hiked fuel prices on June 25, analysts expected RBI to act immediately to counter the inflationary impact of partial deregulation of auto fuels and hike cocking fuels. No action however came at that time.


Now that the scheduled review is just around four weeks away (July 27), most economists were expecting that the RBI will wait for the policy review. However, surprising the markets in a classical way, the central bank increased the rates when no one was anticipating.


Notwithstanding the surprise though, the policy action is a welcome move as inflationary tendencies have been increasing sharply over last few months. The central bank, according to many observers, is already behind the curve, and may have to pick up the pace of policy tightening going forward if the pace of prices hike in the non-food manufacturing space continues.


The timing and extent of hike also suggests that the central bank will further raise policy rates in the scheduled review. In fact, by hiking by 25 bps now, the RBI has given itself more flexibility for the forthcoming review where it can now choose among a number of permutations and combinations of policy and reserve rate mix. It may choose to hike everything (repo, reverse repo and CRR) by 25 bps or may leave CRR alone and hike policy rates by 50 bps. A few other combinations are also plausible.


Justifying the initial delay in policy action and the actual timing of the move, the RBI stated, “This mid-cycle policy action has been warranted by the evolving macroeconomic situation. Even as data for real GDP growth and WPI inflation became available by mid-June 2010, it was considered inadvisable to raise the policy rates as the financial system was dealing with liquidity pressures…Through the month of June, liquidity under LAF operations remained in deficit mode. Consequently, the call rate moved up significantly, resulting in an effective tightening at the short end of the yield curve. The liquidity situation has since begun to ease”.


Since the RBI expects that liquidity may continue to remain tight for some time, it has also extended the additional liquidity support to scheduled commercial banks under the LAF to the extent of up to 0.5% of their net demand and time liabilities (NDTL) up to July 16, 2010. The measure was first put in place on May 26 after liquidity scenario tightened following the advance tax outgo and huge payments for the 3G spectrum by telecom operators and was earlier set to expire on July 2, 2010.


While the two moves may seem contradictory, the RBI didn’t leave the matter to be explained by analysts and added in its statement, “It should be noted in this context that the liquidity easing measures have become necessary to manage what is essentially a temporary and unanticipated development. In no way should they be viewed as inconsistent with the monetary policy stance of calibrated exit, which remains focused on containing inflation and anchoring inflationary expectations without hurting growth”.


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