Demonetisation seals RBI rate cut deal, but that will not reboot a battered economy

Will an RBI rate cut make any major difference at this stage to aid growth? It is doubtful for a few reasons.

Dinesh Unnikrishnan December 07, 2016 08:50:37 IST
Demonetisation seals RBI rate cut deal, but that will not reboot a battered economy

(This copy was first published on 5 December, 2016)

Most of the originally stated results of the demonetisation exercise---killing black money, corruption and terror, are disputed now by experts. It is too early to assess these outcomes. But, if there is one result for certainty with regard to the massive currency crackdown, then that is a rate cut from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Wednesday (7 December)—which, perhaps, wouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances, when the rupee is struggling to recover and global factors are at play.

Demonetisation seals RBI rate cut deal but that will not reboot a battered economy

Reuters

Most economists forecast a quarter percentage point rate cut decision by the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) that will be read out by governor Urjit Patel, but even a 50 basis points cut in the key lending rate of RBI repo, at which the central bank lends short-term funds to banks, cannot be ruled out now given the deep slowdown fears in the economy after the government sucked out 86 percent currency in circulation overnight on 8 November while executing the demonetisation plan.

What this means is that the MPC and the RBI are left with no option but to take a growth supportive stance sooner than it thought, said Radhika Rao, economist at Singapore-based DBS Bank. “Ahead of the looming US rate hike at the mid of this month and ongoing volatility in domestic financial markets, especially the weak rupee, the MPC would have ideally preferred to wait-and-watch before easing rates,” Rao said.

“However, the government’s recent banknote ban has raised downside risks to growth for at least two quarters, starting 4Q16. Scope of food inflation dragging headline inflation lower also keeps the door open for an easy policy bias. These are likely to prod the MPC to consider a 25bp rate cut on Wednesday, followed by another cut in 1Q17,” Rao said.

It is indeed true that demonetisation has resulted in a cash crunch that has caused considerable pain on the ground. It is difficult to assess the actual impact yet. Small traders, construction workers, services sector, perishable goods market are all hit due to the ongoing cash-crunch. The activities in the informal sector have come to a standstill considering, even on conservative estimates, close to 70 percent of India lives on cash economy. There isn’t any consensus yet on the resultant impact on the GDP.

According to former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, the hit that the GDP growth will take will be as much as 2 percent. Many others predict 1 to 1.5 percent and some state that it could be less than one percent. But, almost everyone, like Rao of DBS, agree that the dragging effect on the economy will continue for at least two quarters.

The growth scene is not looking good if one goes by the latest GDP growth print. The July-September growth, despite a marginal improvement in the overall numbers to 7.3 percent in Q2 from 7.1 percent in the April-June quarter, has been disappointing since the only bright spot in the GDP graph is a minor improvement in the agriculture sector. Also, there is no sign of investment activity picking up yet.

Gross Fixed Capital Formation (GFCF), which portrays the actual investment activity on the ground, dropped by close to 6 percent at constant prices. Now remember, this parameter has been contracting for the last three quarters at least. That is not a healthy sign for an aspiring, ambitious economy. When investments don’t support a growth-revival, typically, a consumption-led recovery should come to the rescue. Now, what has been happening here is the government spending, which picked up from the last quarter in a major way, has actually dropped in the second quarter, from 18.8 percent in Q1 to 15.2 percent in Q2, in terms of constant prices. As against this, private spending has shown a marginal increase during the period — from 6.7 percent in Q1 to 7.6 percent in Q2.

In terms of current prices, the government expenditure has fallen to 20.8 percent on year-basis in Q2 from 24.3 percent in Q1. The corresponding numbers for private spending is 11.7 percent in Q1 to 12.4 percent in Q2, showing a minor rise. If one looks at sectors, except the growth shown in agriculture, all other segments —mining, manufacturing, electricity, construction and services such as hotel industry— have shown a decline. This means it is consumption that has been holding the growth story and remains the main growth driver. But, this is where the challenge lies ahead in the aftermath of the demonetisation exercise. The recent PMI data, the first set of economic indicators after the demonetisation exercise, shows a decline to 52.3 in November compared with 54.4 in October. Though, theoretically, a number above 50 is growth-positive, what it indicates is a slowing trend ahead. Services PMI fell even more sharply to 46.7 in November from October's 54.5, the first time since June 2015 that the index has gone below the 50 mark that separates growth from contraction. It was also the biggest one-month drop since November 2008, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the global financial crisis.

Will an RBI rate cut make any major difference at this stage to aid growth? It is doubtful for a few reasons.

First, if banks wanted to lend more to industries, they would have done so already. There is liquidity surplus already in the banking system. More than the availability of cash to lend, poor demand has been hurting loan growth, especially to industries. If one looks at numbers till October (just before the demonetisation happened), bank credit to industry contracted by 1.7 per cent in October 2016 in contrast with an increase of 4.6 per cent in October 2015, with all major sub-sectors witnessing deceleration, contraction in credit include infrastructure, food processing, gems and jewellery and basic metal and metal products.

Second, the problem of NPAs (non-performing assets) continues. Till the time the bad loan stock is cleaned up and bank balance sheets turn healthier, banks are unlikely to take more risks.

Third, the demonetisation and resultant chaos on the ground would mean that consumer spending will go through a dull phase in the near-term. Bankers do not expect any major pickup in consumer lending when the economy is looking at a prolonged downturn.

Nevertheless, a rate cut must happen on Wednesday’s RBI bi-monthly monetary policy review and the full credit for that should go to demonetisation. What most economists agree is that the solution to revert to the growth path lies in the following steps -- 1) resolve the cash crunch at the earliest before it does more damage and get economic activities going, 2) boost public spending and work on ways to bring in more private capital to get the economic engine going, and, 3) make sure farm output doesn’t suffer on account of the currency shortage since a crop failure could stoke inflation further and erase the inflation gains. A rate cut from RBI would be of least help at this stage to reboot the economy.

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