Monday, April 25, 2011

Can hawkish monetary policy alone, control the inflation?

Indian central bank, Reserve Bank of India is meeting on 3rd May for monetary policy meeting of 2011-12 and expected to increase interest rates by 25-50 basis points to rein the inflation. At that time RBI governor Mr. D Subbarao might wonder about the above question as he already increased the interest rates, 8 times in last one year or so. But still many analysts believe, RBI is behind the curve to curb the inflation pressure, as Inflation measured by CPI is in double digits (or near by) through out the year. A year back RBI’s comfort zone of inflation was 5.5% and now it has been revised multiple times and more recently to 8% from 7%. Because of this condition there is a talk going on about Indian economy overheating and India not able to handle the growth!

Economist, Sir John Maynard Keynes and Keynesians believed that “changes in the interest rates do not directly affect the prices and inflation is due to pressure in the economy”. They feel that supply of money is a major, but not the only, cause of inflation. They might be right or wrong in the case of other parts of the world but in Indian case it looks like they are correct. Indian inflation may be due third form of Inflation, i.e. Built inflation and neither Demand-pull inflation (increase in demand) nor Cost-push inflation (drop in supply)! In Built-in inflation, people expect higher prices for future from past experience and also supported by price/wage vicious circle.

The very basic point about inflation is, going by the definition, “its rise in the price levels of goods and services in an economy”. Considering the definition, let’s look at the causes of the inflation in Indian case.

First, inflation can be due to erosion in the buying power of the trading medium, i.e. country’s currency. The best example is recent hyperinflation of Zimbabwe where-in, 1 million Zimbabwean Dollar was equal to 1 American Dollar! But Indian rupee, in last two-three years traded against the major currency, i.e. Dollar in a band of Rs. 44 to Rs. 48 per Dollar. So there is not much scope for this argument.

Second, the Cost-push inflation due to sudden drop in the supply side of the economy. In a globalised world, supply side shocks may not lasts too long, particularly not two years and so (as Indian Inflation is in double digits for almost two years). Take recent example of Onion price, due to shortage, prices doubled and even tripled for a month or so, but once the supply resumed, prices cooled off. The same logic applies to Oil prices also whose price spiked due to Middle East crisis and hopes of recovery. If Oil price spike is only because Middle East crisis and not due to recovery, then it’s very difficult to sustain at this level!

Third, Demand-pull inflation due to rise in the demand because of higher expendable income helped by higher income and supported by higher spending by private and government. According to one school of thought, “Demand inflation is constructive to a faster rate of economic growth since along with favorable market conditions, it will stimulate investments and expansions”. They say, higher growth comes with higher inflation and we need to learn to live with that, if we want higher growth.

The Demand-pull inflation along with Built-in inflation is the most feasible reason for the Indian inflation from above mentioned three types of causes. Digging even further tells us that inflation is a part of the broad economical cycle and very structural in nature. So to curb this kind of inflation, there should be combined efforts from RBI (in monetary front), Governments (in reducing fiscal/current a/c deficit by reducing spending), lesser Borrowed inflation (from across the border in terms of imports), people’s mentality and so on. Finally we must remember nothing is decoupled in an open economy!

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