Mumbai: Indian policymakers said on Thursday that they were concerned about soaring prices, moving bond yields off day lows as investors saw a greater chance of an early interest rate hike despite a slight easing in food and fuel price inflation.
Pressure has been mounting on the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to raise rates ahead of a scheduled 27 July policy review after the wholesale price index rose 10.16% in May, the highest level in the G-20 group of leading economies.
But a slew of sometimes contradictory comments from government officials and central bankers, and a cash squeeze in the banking system, have kept the market jittery about possible tightening moves.
Many traders expect the central bank will wait until at least early July to raise rates.
Most analysts still expect the RBI to wait until its late July review, especially given tight cash conditions at Indian banks.
RBI deputy governor K.C. Chakrabarty said on Thursday that domestic inflation is a bigger concern than other global factors, and C. Rangarajan, economic adviser to the prime minister, called inflation levels “uncomfortable”.
Chakrabarty is not directly involved in monetary policy as other members of board. Rangarajan is seen as having the ear of Prime Minister Mammohan Singh but has little direct influence over monetary policy.
Another RBI deputy governor, Subir Gokarn, who as in charge of monetary policy is seen as an influential member of the board, signalled on Wednesday the bank would continue to tighten but warned against overreacting amid global economic uncertainties, such as Europe’s debt crisis.
The 10-year benchmark bond yield rebounded to 7.6% after the officials’ comments on Thursday. It had earlier fallen to 7.54% after the central bank announced it would buy back Rs200 billion ($4.3 billion) of bonds to help ease a temporary cash shortage.
Cash has been tight in India since late May as about Rs1.36 trillion has flowed out of the banking system towards payments for government 3G mobile spectrum and broadband auctions, and for advance tax payments.
The Indian banking system will face a shortfall of at least Rs400 billion-450 billion once payments for broadband auctions are complete next week, traders estimated, adding the situation will be clearer when the new reporting fortnight starts Saturday.
“Though people are calling for RBI action, I feel the RBI will wait and gauge the inflation and liquidity situation for at least another couple of weeks before deciding on any action,” said S. Srinivasaraghavan, treasury head at IDBI Gilts.
“Whatever action they take will only have a lag effect, and we have to also keep in mind that previous monetary action has had little impact on inflation as it is largely supply-side driven,” he added.
Inflation in India has remained stubbornly high, adding to pressure on the central bank as well as the government, which fears a rapid rise in interest rates could anger voters and derail the country’s strong economic growth.
Prime Minister Singh’s coalition government has already held back on major economic reforms such as freeing up retail fuel prices ahead of eight state elections due later in 2010 and 2011.
Government data on Thursday showed India’s food price index rose 16.12% in the year to June 5, though the rate of growth eased from the previous week’s annual reading of 16.74 percent.
The fuel price index climbed 13.18%, compared with an annual rise of 14.23 percent in the previous week.
Policymakers and advisers have said inflation is expected to ease in the coming months on lower food prices and normal monsoon rains, but their comments have been off the mark in the past.
“It won’t be prudent on the part of the RBI to hike rates at least in June because you have these liquidity issues,” said Jay Shankar, an economist at Religare Capital.
Singh expects the inflation rate to moderate to 5-6% by December.
The RBI has raised rates twice, by a total of 50 basis points, since mid-March to curb price pressures and is expected to deliver another hike of 25 basis points at the July review. The markets have already priced in such a move.
Central banks in the region such as those in Australia and Malaysia have started raising rates as growth rebounds from the global slowdown. But some Asian banks have paused in their tightening to see if the euro zone’s debt crisis will jeopardise the global economic recovery.