India is not ready for CPI Based inflation targeting – not yet

It has been close to two years since the Urjit Patel Committee Report set the CPI based inflation ‘Targetting’ as the primary axis of our monetary policy. There are murmurs now from both the Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog and the CEA. In both its key thrusts (i) abandoning the multiple indicator approach for inflation control and (ii) adopting CPI combined instead of WPI as the inflation to target, it is looking like a cricket umpire trying to control the football game in the adjacent ground. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks out of context and tautological in its key arguments and conclusions.

Inflation targeting

“Anchored inflation expectations will … provide the latitude to address other objectives without compromising price stability” (Para II.3). In 18 months RBI has not been able to even ‘anchor’ interest rate expectations – there is so much of debate before each meeting and annoyance after. To anchor inflation expectation by stabilizing inflation to provide a stable interest rate regime to create ideal conditions for investments to generate employment and growth … by the time this comes about it may be Saturday in the Economic Solomon Grundy’s life cycle.

‘High inflation expectations exhibit far greater stickiness than inflation (para 3.2).’ In the past 5-6 years most of inflation has come from agricultural commodities and fuel – segments least under RBI’s control. Our agricultural markets are the most ‘perfect’ markets and given Indians’ mindset of ‘bargain everything’, prices quickly readjust to imbalances. If the Onion prices ruled at Rs 80 one week and slid to Rs 20 the next 2 weeks it is inconceivable that anyone’s expectation will be guided by the Onion prices that prevailed 3 weeks ago. The reverse is also true. Trying to stabilize them through interest rates is a fruitless exercise.

The level of emphasis to be given to inflation control should ideally depend on the national ‘wealth to current income’ ratio. Where it is high and more citizens depend on interest from savings for livelihood, preservation of money’s value is more important. India’s ratio will be dismal comparatively and hence there was a need to balance it with growth and employment objectives. In our context jobs are the best social security.

Constraining Targets

The targets set are a source of worry, for growth itself can cause inflation. For example, in a 2 product, 2 player economy producing 4 coconuts and 2 fish, each fish will retail for 2 coconuts. If the productivity of coconuts increases to 6, the price of fish will become 3. In a monetized economy, wages are terribly sticky downwards and the price of coconuts (derived from the wages which do not move downwards) will remain the same and the price of fish will move up by 50%. There will be the inevitable inflation even if the weights are corrected. This is harmless inflation however. Suppressing this will only result in curbing growth.

A constant inflation target of 6% (+/- 2%) irrespective of whether the growth is 4.5% or 8% seems meaningless.Given India’s rigidities and the way minimum wages are revised whimsically, a 6% target may be far too constraining for a 8% growth target.

In a place like Singapore where trade credits are near totally from banking system, and firms are leveraged 3 or 4 times and work on thin net margins of 2 percent, a ¼ % is a huge dampener and firms might start cutting down on stocks from the next cycle itself. In India with 10-12% gross retail margins a large proportion of which is imputed labour and imputed rent – both far less sensitive to interest rates – and credit largely accessed from non-banking sources, a ¼ % interest rate adjustment to tame or stoke inflation seems irrelevant. Large dosages to achieve a given reduction in overall inflation will hurt a whole host of other sectors disproportionately.

Pitfalls of a statistical approach

The report relies on the New Keynesian Philips Curve equation as the theoretical framework. The 3 factors listed (output gap, cost push, and expectations) in the supply block of equation while relevant is far from decisive or comprehensive. Let’s see an example – how ‘cost push’ can be highly episodic or fickle.

The supply curve is the marginal costs of various firms stacked in increasing order from most efficient to most inefficient and the price is determined purely by the marginal cost of the most inefficient firm required to fulfill a given level of demand. The cost structure of all the other more efficient firms stand irrelevant. Where the most marginal supplier unit (which determines the price) happens to be an overseas firm, prices will be purely determined by import parity. Domestic cost structures do not matter at all: what will matter is the cost structure of source countries. In such a case currency movements play a much larger role.

Again, where the marginal cost difference between the least competitive firm and the next is low or negligible, output gaps may not have an impact on inflation at all.

One does not know how one can form firm action-effect inflation targeting policies on such highly fickle variables alone.

Flawed assumption

The report justifies targeting since ‘persistent inflation worsens income distribution as the poor carry greater proportion of cash’(II.1). This is spurious sympathy. Poor carry cash largely for transaction demand. In rural areas savings till the next season is largely in grains and savings over longer term is in Gold. Surplus cash in the informal sector finds its way largely into small unorganized chit funds and informal credits earning 5-6% per month. It is impossible to conceive that they carry cash over longer time as savings. A cash balance of 2 months when inflation is 12% per annum suffers 2% value dilution. This is just 1% higher than at the targeted inflation levels – hardly relevant which only shows a lack of contextual knowledge.

Inflation in a way represents existence of consumer surplus. In the initial wave, it’s only products with high consumer surplus that will move up in price. There is no reason for RBI to be an arbiter in such a case. It is only in the secondary waves prices of others will move up before it becomes a monetary phenomenon. If those affected in secondary wave are interest rate sensitive then to target inflation with interest rates becomes logical: but only if.

Any regulator will have to keep the aspirations of the people in mind. Ask any job seeker whether he would prefer a job or live with an additional 5-6% inflation. Employment will most certainly be preferable to preservation of value. Growth expands employment opportunities. To be dismissive of these almost mockingly and concentrate on CPI based inflation is to forget the context.

One wishes the Committee had taken advantage of recent advances in Behavioral Economics while formulating its recommendations.

Link to the article published in Businessline:



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