The Reserve Bank of India is changing again
While RBI’s central board has certain powers, these have been rarely used to oppose finance ministry action
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Time was when the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) resembled more a Soviet rationing officer than a conventional central bank. Mercifully, 1991 and economic reforms ended all that; the RBI got down to conventional central banking, which included moving the economy slowly out of administered interest rates, ending automatic monetization of government debt and shrinking its autarchic footprint. After a 26-year hiatus, there are misgivings that RBI could be lapsing into some of its old habits.
In the now defunct central banking format practised by RBI, all credit over Rs1 crore was rationed. Under a scheme called Credit Authorization Scheme, the RBI vetted all large loan proposals. Even though the floor was raised gradually over time, RBI continued to have a say in how much banks could lend to whom, and at what rate. The RBI was also the implementer (and custodian) of the government’s illiberal measures: banks had to compulsorily invest 40% of deposits in low-priced government securities and keep 20% with RBI as a cash reserve. Of the balance 40% left for lending, 40% had to be mandatorily lent at concessional rates, leaving “commercial” banks with only 24% of deposits to play around with. No wonder average lending rates ranged between 16-18% and non-performing assets were rarely recognized, leave alone provisioned.
These are now part of the nation’s sepia-tinted economic history. The RBI has been easing controls for the past 26 years, even though it has retained numerous other controls as part of its mandate to ensure monetary and financial stability. The overall process has not always been smooth or linear. Economic disruptions, both exogenous and endogenous, have occasionally forced the RBI to slow down or undertake course correction.
In recent months, there are suspicions that RBI’s reform mandate may have changed. The central bank’s role in the demonetization exercise sowed the first seeds of doubt. While the RBI’s central board has certain powers, these have been rarely used to oppose government action. Then, as well as now, the RBI would have gone along with the decision. But, here’s the crucial difference: governor and deputy governors could have used different platforms to speak their mind about the extreme decision. They would have made attempts to explain the economic shock to citizens. Instead, RBI’s March report on the macro-economic impact of demonetisation is an exercise in politesse.
Perhaps RBI doesn’t want to speak out because collateral damage from demonetisation has kept it incredibly busy.
Demonetization led to a liquidity surge, forcing the RBI to step in. Banks had no alternative route to deploy this liquidity, given the uncertainty created by demonetisation and industry’s non performing assets (NPA) induced aversion to bank credit. The RBI implemented a four-stage liquidity management programme, using different instruments at different times. Surplus liquidity also depressed debt yields. Around the same time, on 14 December, the US central bank Federal Reserve raised interest rates leading to outflow of foreign portfolio investment (FPI) from Indian debt markets—Rs46,087 crore went out during the last three months of 2016. This continued in January too. Consequently, the rupee-dollar exchange rate also mirrored these trends, depreciating initially and then staying range-bound for a month.
Then, suddenly around end-January, yields on the 10-year government bond started perking up. Foreign portfolio investment inflows also rushed in—Rs51,679 crore during February-April. By end-April, the rupee had also appreciated by almost 6.5% from the lows of 24 November.
The rupee’s appreciation has hurt exporters. But, more importantly, a 6.5% movement in such a short time is a sign of untreated volatility and should have been countered by the RBI. But, tackling the demonetization-led liquidity surge has probably left the RBI with little or no fire-power. Ordinarily, faced with such a predicament, the RBI would have used another weapon: talking the market down. But, neither the RBI governor nor his deputies has spoken a word over the past few months.
Two conclusions arise: either the RBI agrees with the current rupee value (which most economists think is over-valued) or it is scared to speak out. The government’s distaste for former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan’s public speeches was well publicized. RBI’s top brass has delivered only nine public speeches between January and May this year, compared with 23 last year.
Management of stressed assets is another example where the RBI seems to have abandoned characteristic central bank detachment. The RBI is stepping into the mud-pit of stressed assets to help banks recover sticky loans; this includes even taking commercial decisions regarding selection of credit rating agencies. This could expose RBI to serious risk, including reputational risk.
It might be instructive here to recall how Rajan spent his last days in office staving off pressure from the finance ministry, which insisted that the RBI use its balance-sheet to recapitalize public sector banks. At that time, deputy governor Viral Acharya (then professor with Stern School of Business) had criticized it in a Bloomberg story, saying, “At a minimum, it looks opaque and devious…could be perceived as an attack on central banking independence.” (https://goo.gl/52a9i4)
At a time when globalization is in peril, the RBI seems to be voting for a dubious global trend: ceding autonomy to the political executive without a fight.
Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.