Food inflation is down but the figure Raghuram Rajan is watching hasn’t even budged

ARTS RAJANVivek Kaul  

As soon as some new economic data is declared by the government, the business lobbies demand that the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) should cut interest rates. The response is almost Pavlovian. Something similar happened yesterday as well. The index of industrial production(IIP) shrunk by 0.6% for the month of December 2013.
The manufacturing sector which constitutes close to three fourths of the index declined by 1.6% during the month. In comparison, it had declined by 0.8% during December 2012. The IIP is a measure of the industrial activity within the country and given that the number is in negative territory, what it tells us is that all is not well with the Indian businesses.
No sooner had the number been declared, the Confederation of Indian Industry I(CII), a leading business lobby in the country demanded that interest rates be cut. “We are especially concerned about the performance of the manufacturing sector, which continues to be in the red,” 
CII Director General Chandrajit Banerjee said. “We look forward for an accommodative monetary policy to spur demand and revive investment activity especially as inflation has started receding,” he added. Accommodative monetary policy essentially refers to the RBI cutting the repo rate, the rate at which it lends to banks.
The logic is that if the RBI cuts the repo rate, the banks will cut the interest rates at which they lend. This will ensure that people will borrow and spend more, which will translate into greater revenue and profit for businesses. Once businesses start making more money, they are likely to invest more as well. All this will lead to a higher economic growth, which for this financial year is likely to be at or around 5%. Or so goes the argument.
Another reason why business lobbies feel that the RBI should be cutting interest rates is the fact that the consumer price index(CPI) inflation in January 2014 fell to a two year low of 8.79%. This was on the back of food inflation falling to a 22 month low of 9.9%. Food products constitute nearly half of the consumer price index. Food inflation was at 12.2% in December 2013.
Food inflation came down because of the vegetable prices falling by 13.2% between December and January. This was primarily on account of greater supply of vegetables hitting the market. During the period August-September 2013, farmers made significantly better returns on their produce. This led to them planting more vegetables, leading to an oversupply in the recent months.
So with the consumer price inflation falling to a two year low, the business lobbies want the RBI to start cutting interest rates in order to revive consumer demand, which has been stagnating for a while. The IIP data when looked from a use based point of view, indicates towards the same. The consumer durables measure fell by 16.2% during December 2013.
But the question is will a cut in interest rates revive consumer demand? While in theory the link appears to be fairly straightforward, that is really not the case. Let’s consider a case where an individual takes a three year two wheeler loan of Rs 40,000 from the State Bank of India to be repaid over a period of 36 months at an interest of 18.25%. The EMI for this comes to around Rs 1451.
Now lets assume that interest rates crash dramatically by one third from their current levels and the rate of interest on a two wheeler loan from the State Bank of India falls to 12.25%. In this case, the EMI falls to Rs 1333 or around Rs 118 lower. Hence, even if interest rates come down by a third, the EMI falls only by around Rs 118 or a little over 8%.
Someone who wants to buy a two-wheeler will definitely not be influenced by it. As John Kenneth Galbraith writes in 
The Affluent Society, first published in the 1950s, “The customer, in contemplating the purchase, is less aware of the interest rate than of the monthly charge…There is, in fact, considerable agreement that monetary policy does not make any effective contact with consumer borrowing and spending. During periods of active monetary policy, increased finance charges have regularly been followed by large increases in consumer loans.”
Given this, the customer who wants to purchase a consumer good by taking on a loan should be comfortable with the idea of paying an ‘x’ amount of money every month as an EMI, irrespective of what the interest rate is.
In this scenario, what becomes very important is the rate of inflation. For more than five years, inflation as measured by the consumer price index has been very high. This has largely been on account of food prices having gone up at a very fast rate. High inflation has eaten into the incomes of people and led to a scenario where their expenditure has gone up faster than their income. This has led to people cutting down on expenditure which is not immediately necessary. This is reflected in the consumer durable number which fell by 16.2% in December 2013.
Food prices have now started to come down and that is some good news for the Indian consumer. But if one looks at what economists call core inflation (i.e. non food non fuel inflation which forms around 40% of the consumer price inflation index) that remains to be high at 8%, as it has over the last few months. The core inflation contains measures of housing, medical care, education, recreation, transport, personal care etc, basically, everything that is required for a reasonably comfortable living.
Interestingly, this number is closely tracked by the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. 
He had said on January 29, 2014, “that he would have liked to see a greater reduction in core inflation.” A day earlier in an interaction with the media he had said that “. Core (inflation) tells us something about the second round effects. Even within core, there are some which we need to pay attention to like some aspects of services like education, which have been going up quite strongly.” Given this, it is unlikely that the RBI will cut the repo rate anytime soon.
If the consumer demand story is to be revived again, the core inflation needs to be brought down, so that consumers feel comfortable in spending money. The ironical part here is that despite the economic growth falling from more than 10% to less than 5%, over the last few years, core inflation continues to remain high. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the high price of food, leads to a demand for higher wages and that leads a higher core inflation. When businesses have to pay higher wages, they, in turn, demand a higher price from consumers. And this in turn impacts consumer demand.
The government can definitely play a role here by cracking down on hoarders of food and at the same ensure that there is no shortage of wheat and rice in the market, of which it has enormous stocks.
As far as businesses lobbies are concerned it is worth looking at what Galbraith said in that context. “To restrict consumer borrowing by increasing the interest cost on instalment and other loans collides abruptly with the process of consumer-demand creation…Any step to discourage borrowing and buying will be automatically opposed by the machinery for consumer-demand creation.”

 The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on February 13, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

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About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

One Response to Food inflation is down but the figure Raghuram Rajan is watching hasn’t even budged

  1. saideep jadhav says:

    Sir,I enjoy reading all your articles.

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