Home / Politics / Policy /  Online discounts on iPhones and Bibles could signal India rate cuts

Mumbai: With India’s busiest shopping season in full swing, the country’s fast-growing online retailers are offering steep discounts: 18% on Apple’s iPhone 4s, 30% on a Samsung television, 50% on the Bible.

The widely advertised rebates from Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon have also caught the attention of some top Indian economists, which are looking at how they affect monetary policy. Ever since the central bank shifted to inflation targeting earlier this year, cheaper goods equal lower rates.

Their premise is that the consumer price index, which doesn’t include online commerce, may be overestimating inflation. This hints that the central bank could relax and continue cutting interest rates, after lowering the benchmark by 1.25 percentage points this year.

The question was raised by a technical panel that advises the central bank, according to minutesof a September meeting released last week. India’s largest bank, State Bank of India, followed two days later with a research note estimating that consumer price inflation could actually be a quarter-point lower than the 4.4% figure in September.

“In that case, there is always scope for an accommodative monetary policy," SBI chief economist Soumya Kanti Ghosh said by phone. “This is going to be an issue going forward if the e-commerce market increases and if the discounts actually go up."

His study constructed a price index that took online discounts for some goods into account, using a 20% cut on electronic or clothing goods and 50% off on books. He said it accounts for the weighting of the e-commerce market among India’s 1.2 billion people.

Figuring that out isn’t an exact science; the numbers depend on the information companies want to share. UBS estimates that online retail accounts for just 0.8% of India’s total retail market, while 92% is through mom-and-pop stores.

While that seems small, it compares with 1% in Singapore, while a separate study by Indian management firm Technopak puts the US at 6%.

E. Dasarathan, deputy director general in the statistics ministry, confirmed that the consumer-price index doesn’t take into account e-commerce sales, saying it tracks prices at retail stores. He declined to comment on SBI’s report.

The question over retail sales is further complicating an ongoing debate about inflation in India. Some economists have said the central bank should take into account wholesale inflation.

While the discussion may be premature today, it has the potential to become more of an issue in years to come. Euromonitor estimates that the value of goods sold online in India will nearly triple to $24 billion by the end of 2019. Bloomberg

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