Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Tackling India’s inflation and policy puzzles

While lower food prices are good news for consumers, they will not help address the distress in the rural economy

Inflation based on consumer price index (CPI) has surprised analysts on the downside. Data released last week showed that inflation for the month of October was at 3.31%. Analysts expect headline inflation to remain low in the coming months as well, partly because of lower food prices. Global crude prices have also come down recently and should help keep inflation in check. The headline inflation number should please both the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

It is actually remarkable that inflation remained muted despite the sharp jump in crude prices this year. Its holding at lower levels for an extended period will improve India’s policy credibility and strengthen macroeconomic stability.

Though low inflation is desirable, it currently masks a fair amount of policy complexity, both for the government and the central bank. As noted above, food prices have remained low. RBI deputy governor Viral Acharya in the October meeting of the monetary policy committee (MPC), for instance, noted: “Since the August policy, food inflation has surprised dramatically on the downside. Seasonal pickup in prices of vegetables and fruits in summer months was simply missing due to a combination of increased mandi arrivals, export policies and other supply management measures. This, coupled with a normal monsoon, has shifted RBI’s food inflation projections significantly downward."

While lower food prices are good news for consumers, they will not help address the distress in the rural economy. Politically, this could affect the chances of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, both in the ongoing assembly elections and the upcoming Lok Sabha election. In terms of the broader economic impact, lower purchasing power in rural areas could affect aggregate demand and growth. This also suggests that the announcement of higher minimum support prices (MSPs) and other measures to improve income in the farm sector are not working as desired. It highlights the limitations of MSP as a mechanism to ensure better prices for output in the farm sector. Therefore, it is important to broaden the framework of reforms in the agriculture sector in order to find durable solutions that will not only help farmers get better returns but also smoothen prices in the marketplace. India now needs to prepare to handle surplus in agricultural production on a sustainable basis.

On the monetary policy side, as Acharya’s statement suggests, food inflation has been surprising on the downside and has affected inflation projections of the central bank. It is likely that actual inflation will undershoot the projections, partly due to continued softness in food prices.

Further, the RBI’s assumption for the Indian basket of crude is now at $80 per barrel and, according to its estimates, a 10% increase or decrease in prices could have a 20 basis point impact on inflation. Crude prices coming down significantly will help keep inflation low.

The MPC, in its October meeting, decided to keep policy rates unchanged and changed the stance to calibrated tightening, which basically means that the possibility of cutting interest rates is off the table for now. This newspaper had argued in favour of increasing the policy rate in light of rising crude prices and the falling rupee. Those risks have come down, but the MPC would do well to remain vigilant. There is still a fair amount of uncertainty on the crude front and prices could reverse with the proposed cut in production by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and rising geopolitical tension.

Further, while the rupee has strengthened from its lows, tightening of financial conditions in global markets and the expected increase in interest rates by the US Federal Reserve will continue to put pressure. Markets now expect the MPC to keep rates unchanged in the December meeting. However, if inflation continues to surprise on the downside in the coming months, it is likely that the clamour for lower rates will rise. This will pose a policy dilemma. Aside from the fact that core inflation continues to remain high, a narrowing interest rate differential with the US will affect capital flows. Though it makes sense for a central bank in its early days of inflation targeting to be cautious, it should be prepared to face some criticism for keeping the real rates at higher levels.

Therefore, while it is good that inflation is under control and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future, policymakers will need to address the challenges posed by it so that it is durable and aids economic growth in the medium to long run.

Will low inflation benefit the Indian economy? Tell us at views@livemint.com

Close