Time to shed excessive fixation over inflationary expectation in Monetary Policy Making

The Last 3-4 years inflation control has become the dominant theme of our monetary policy making with just a lip service to growth and even lesser concern for what is needed most by the democracy – employment. Inflationary expectations have become the mascot of inflation and taming it has become a near exclusive fixation. the current approach fails to incorprate lessons from the recent advances in behavioural economics
Inflationary expectations have stayed stubborn and unrelenting at 8-10% even while CPI inflation has been has been drifting downwards to around 3-4% for several months.
There are some fundamental issues with expectations of individuals.
Firstly, do retail consumers (unlike equity investors) from whom data is gathered for consumer inflationary expectations have sufficient information and expertise to predict inflation even if they are the ones who are affected? People dislike risks and as Daniel Kahneman theorises people dislike losses twice as much as they like profits. There is hence a tendency to overestimate risks and the losses especially the non insurable ones. Even RBI itself has been consistently overestimating inflation.
Secondly, mind comprehends or estimates prices more based on purchase cycle. For example, a vegetable or fruit purchaser might think or worry about what will it be in the next two weeks. But it will be futile to ask him for an estimate of prices 26 or 48 weeks hence. RBI data gathering does not reckon the purchase cycle.
Thirdly, the nature of human mathematical comprehension itself and translation thereof into annual numbers. Even if they knew rightly that the weekly inflation of two different items are 0.2% and 0.5%, they will most likely come up with annual numbers in the region of 6-10% (instead of 11-30%). RBI’s data on various class wise inflation expectation figures reveal how the expectations are in a significantly narrower band than the experience of the preceding few weeks or months which should have had a significant influence on their expectations. Vegetables prices vary by as much as 40% between March and September (RBI’s Mint Street memo 19), yet this is never captured in the expectations reported which stays flat at 8-10% for most of the times.
How much do expectations drive actual behaviour.
This is the most crucial question that would govern the success or failure of the current approach. Unless it can be demonstrated that people’s behaviour (in direction as well as quantum) is consistent with their inflationary expectation using it will be as perilous as a trap shooter shooting before the bell and hoping that somehow the clay pigeon will show up where the shotshell goes.
How much inflationary expectations will affect consumers buying behaviour depends on several factors like the life cycle of the product itself, per transaction costs, costs of advancing or postponing buying decision and the alternative (even if short term) investment avenues and cost of funds (borrowing costs).
A 15% annual inflationary expectation in real estate might make many to advance their purchase of house sooner than later more so if the financing costs are lower and perhaps even reallocate from other items to beat the market. But the same inflation expectations for petrol and diesel prices (roughly 1.12% on monthly cycle basis) may not make a car or 2 wheeler owner to tank up on empty cans to cover his next purchase. The same rate (0.264% on weekly cumulation basis) would not make anyone to stock up on vegetables especially given the cost of preservation and possible deterioration.
The House owner will most definitely compare his cost of borrowing with his expected price increase in house prices to make his purchase decision. But for articles of daily consumption or even white goods the household consumers are unlikely to be swayed by inflations of the range one is talking of in India. This can be gauged by the discount quantum announced during festive seasons or season end sales in India – upwards of 15-20% of sale and in some items 40% or one free for every one purchased and so on. One does not hear of 1-2% off on discount sales open only for 1-2 days (a 2% discount ending in 2 days translates to a cumulative 3500% p.a.) even for ‘definite to be purchased’ articles of consumption like clothing, household supplies etc. It does not have any impact. Even the pensioners may not be influenced to stock up even when their savings may be earning just 6-8% annual interest rates.
Unless inflationary expectations translate to rational choices by consumers, the current approach will on most occasions result on excessive action. And as RBI’s data clearly proves that as far as India is concerned, inflationary expectations are not necessarily rational expectations.
Only when inflation becomes high (say 20-25% for India) and the interest rates are way lower in comparison or in a hyper inflation (like in Venezuela now), would people be driven to rush their purchases fuelling the price increase further. The current approach at inflation levels of 4-6% seems like having a foot firmly on the brake pedal as a precautionary measure while driving at 1 kmph. Actually many end products in agri and manufacturing sector are crying for a better inflation to neutralise their cost increases.
A case for differentiated approach
There is good case for junking our inflation control focus of monetary policy making. If our economists have faith in their own icon, Philips (after whom the curve linking inflation and unemployment is named), even in short run they would be forced to conceed that a low inflation is a leading likely cause of the current unemployment crisis. We can just use the last 2 months or quarters inflation to decide what to do and should it be necessary convene the review meetings at closer intervals whenever necessary.
Rather than a single objective whatever the inflation, we should move a into differentiated approach depending on levels of inflation. Upto 4-6% inflation we should focus on job creation, between 5-8% may be on growth and employment and thereafter inflation control can take primacy.
Our industrial capacity utilisation is stuck at about 75% for a long time now. The lowest hanging fruit to be harvested for employment and growth is to put the unutilised 25% to use. It would take a bold approach to identify the more viable ones amongst these and provide them with 4-6% working capital, which could make them chugging again. A growth of an additional 2% will deliver more goods and services to the consumers and tame inflation and create employment far better. But such a sensible approach would be blasphemous to our orthodox theorists.

A Contrarian Monetary Policy

Indian industry has been sluggish for a fairly long time, and all our orthodox monetary policies have not been able to make it come alive, grow and deliver employment of any great proportion. Democracy does not seem to be the villain, as much as unimaginative policies. Opportunity costs for experimenting with an alternative policy are very low now, as never before.
The key cornerstones of such a policy would be as follows:

  •  No FDI/FPI or FII targets: Just maintain the rupee within -4%/+1% of REER values. This will be pre-fixed with a one-time readjustment to correct the current overvaluation.
  • No inflation targeting: Target industry/economic activity-specific interest rates based on supply gaps or potential. Debunk general purpose credit measures.
  • Switch from price-based (repo and bank rate) money volumes to volumes-based price (interest rate) discovery.
  • These monetary measures have to be garnished with two fiscal actions—bringing petroleum under the ambit of GST (28%), and aligning all export incentives with the ‘best of ASEAN’ incentive package.

Let’s see how these contrarian measures are better suited to kick-start industrial revival and help in the creation of employment. First, a recapture of changes in business behaviour especially with respect to the main policy tool, i.e. interest rates.

Interest on working capital should count as variable cash costs (marginal cost to economists). An increase across the board for all players would only push up the supply curve and result in inflated prices—quite contrary to the effect desired. In any case, due to advances in communication, payment systems, ‘as and when needed door delivered’ systems, optimisation algorithms in stock keeping, etc, businesses are working with a lot less working capital and some enterprises even on negative working capital.

The ability of long-term interest rates to influence investment decisions is fast dwindling over time. Most of the new economy is funded by equity capital and sweat equity. In conventional manufacturing, gone are the days of 4 or 3:1 debt equity structures. Credit rating agencies frown at 1.5X debt levels now. Investments in new economy areas like Google, Ola, Paytm, IPL, casinos, Reliance Jio and space travel are more an outcome of guts and vision, rather than RoI and IRR-based like automotive sector, consumer products and street corner restaurants. And the new economy’s share in investments is overshadowing that of the traditional economy’s. These have reduced the potency of some of the monetary tools. More savings are also finding their bypass route to investments than through conventional banks and financial institutions, i.e. through private equity, VC, HNI, PMS systems, etc. Interest can affect consumer demand and have some effect on savers conduct, and this could be used for maximum impact.

The Indian context
The general capacity utilisation in industries is stuck at less than 75%—a level that will hardly inspire any investments. A great proportion of consumption growth has been met through imports from more cost-competitive nations. A few relatively better cost-competitive players have seen their capacity utilisation grow to fuller levels.

There are some industries (such as telecom) that have seen investment, but these are largely in the nature of ‘overtaking’ investments, i.e. fresh investments with superior offerings, driving customers away from existing players, thus rendering already standing investments to lower capacity utilisation levels. Some such industries (such as modern retail and banking) have also destroyed jobs through the use of technology.

A contrarian approach
Working capital interest rates for manufacturers with fuller utilisation should discourage stocking. Credit flow for downstream distribution and trade for such industries may be either curtailed using physical norms or prohibitive interest rates. But long-term interest rates should be kept lower to encourage quick capacity additions. Industries which see low capacity utilisation need lower working capital and export-facilitating interest rates, but long-term loan rates should ideally dissuade fresh capacity additions.

Overtaking investments should be mandated to raise a greater proportion of funds through own or equity funds. Besides being risky themselves, they also create systemic risks for all the existing players and their financing banks, and hence the whole industry should be charged risk premiums and far tighter debt/equity targets (<0.5 maybe), which would slow down such investments.

The above clearly indicates a need to junk the current general purpose credit policies and adoption of a sector-specific approach, with working capital and capacity addition loans being priced differently—risk premiums on one end and incentives on the other.

The 2008 meltdown could, in large measure, have been avoided by controlling just one industry—construction and mortgage-backed securitisation. Industry-focused approach produces results faster, is focused on the causes, and avoids unnecessary spillages and unintended harmful side-effects on other industries.

Sticking to the REER corridor of -4%/+1% on a yearly basis will help in competitive (to the rest of the world) inflation anchoring (of traded/tradable goods and services and thus overall), unless, of course, we import a large portion from the Venezuelas of the world. A 4% undervaluation will somewhat neutralise the loss/lack of competitiveness due to our infrastructural bottlenecks, substandard scales and bureaucratic bottlenecks. Such REER targeting will also determine levels of FPI/FII targets and portfolio investments.

Even if we want to anchor inflation, 6% makes sense, but giving the same width on the underside at 2% does not make sense. Any growing economy needs higher inflation and the corridor for an anchor of 4% may even be 4-6%, instead of 2-6%. Or even just 6% maximum, like highway speed limits.

Inflation, interest rates and volume of credit all have their influence on economic activity with varying degrees, with inflation being the least direct and perhaps most loose, and the volume of credit most direct and perhaps more immediate. Moderating through a more direct tool can be more effective. Interest rates can be the resultant, than being a determinant.
Fuel oil has the largest influence for a single item and should perhaps be under the central control of the GST Council, rather than be a matter of political Centre-state slugfest. Proper control of a few such items could moderate inflation to the desired levels. Indian incentives as well infrastructure are way too uncompetitive, and even as physical infrastructure takes time, one can work with export incentives.

Monetary policies increasingly look like wet blankets to suppress high fever. Without redressing the causes, we will only reap the harmful side-effects. Monetary policies do not seem to have rediscovered themselves in the last several decades with advances in behavioural economics, not even business behaviour.

For the Poor Interest Rates are more a function of Culture; not arithmatics

https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/a-poor-understanding-of-monetary-policy/1234554/

For much of poor – rural or urban – in many parts of the world, interest rates are not a monolithic price point balancing demand and supply of credit with variations mainly (if not solely) for credit risks and time duration.

Poor people have been observed to keep currencies for safe custody without any compensation with the same wealthy lender from whom they have borrowed money at  usuary rates of interest. This seems irrational but is compelling to the poor to ensure cashflows for upcoming events like marriage, funeral, school admission, or sowing. This perhaps addresses their ‘fear’ against an irresponsible husband or ‘lack of self control’ over competing short term spending itches.

Nothing can explain so many irrational practices (as formal system sees them) in South Africa surrounding funeral finances. A decent funeral is a matter of prestige and social standing (ranks perhaps number 1 in their Maslows hierarchy) and consumes about half/full years income. Years of zero interest (or even paying safe keeping fees), deposits with funeral societies defeats arithmatic rationality but addresses anxieties on maintaning social prestige.

As the book Portfolios of the Poor reports, moneylenders to the poor almost always collect interest rates in advance and don’t refund proportionate portion for unutilized period on any prepayment. Yet just to feel relieved from the burden/shame of indebtedness the poor pay up most loans ahead of time thus increasing the ex post interest rates by several % points – irrational arithmatic wise but rational mental relief wise. The book also observes practices where people borrow expensive monies leaving savings accounts intact due to a silo (usewise) mentality.

Just no commentator or official have understood the ‘Rs 10.50 in the evening for Rs 10 in the morning’ small trade finances. Simple arithmatic tells us it is more than 1800% per annum even without compounding. But the money lender apart from running counter party risks also knows the purpose and can get into such business himself or set up someone else who can. So why should he not get to share the spoils with the trader. In that sense it is more a share in the joint venture profits not interest. Its just dividends with a Cap in treasury managers parlance.

Surely in the ladder of social shame, borrowing ranks somewhere sub-ordinate to other social compulsions (gifts and donations in marriages, funerals, festivals, religious functions, etc), medical emergencies etc. Otherwise they wont be borrowing. Borrowing for economic purposes like for sowing, cattle buying, houses etc. may be justified on rational grounds. If Governments want the poor to become rational, they may have to invest a lot in social education and training to move up indebtedness and make other non economic needs less shameful than borrowing.

In fact this sense of indebtedness and shame from failures to meet obligations and social policing have induced repayment discipline amongst the poor. This is a great social collateral which the formal systems refuse to recognise or promote.

Most poor cannot count; even if they can, most don’t

Many studies indicate that in their decision on when to borrow, from whom (for some loans from next door neighbour is preferred, for some relatives but some other purposes it is considered shameful to borrow from them), and when to repay or prepay, the arithmatic of interest rates weighs far lower as compared to a rational person. Culture, social customs, peer pressure, shame and fear, family pressures decisively overshadow the arithmatic.

Thus when the RBI’s appointed committee put caps on the interest rates charged by MFIs as the main weapon to deal with some events in the erstwhile combined Andhra Pradesh, it only betrayed its lack of understanding of the financial culture of the poor. The arithmatics of interest rate may work better for formal systems, between banks and financial markets, in cities and amongst the rich and heavily banked but not amongst the poor.

The poor levels of financial integration and inclusion in india is the result of this lack or refusal to understand the culture. RBI (or its equivalent monetary authorities) should stop their colonising mindset: they should not  supplant the financial culture by dictating the price, acceptable instruments and institutions. Formal form over substance KYC’s can never match the KYC of the local moneylender whose self interest is locked in with his customers fortunes.

Establish the role of money first before seeking policy effectiveness

Before trying to establish the suzerinity of its policies over the rural and poor India, RBI should first establish the hold of our currency (Rupee) on the poor. For some of more important functions of money the poor trust its surrogates more. Gold (cows in Swaziland or cattle in many parts of Africa) has much more dominance in store of value function of money and to a limited extent even in liquidity and transaction demand. Policies and schemes about Gold over the years have been rather unimaginative. The high levels of informal economy does not help either.

Some aspects of the financial culture of the poor described above also come out of fear and anxieties, cashflow uncertainties, ill timed arrival of cultural exigencies, etc. These can be overcome to a large degree by appropriate insurance whose penetration is very poor now. Proper insurances on various cashflow risks that the poor face, will release a lot of gold and make the poor adopt a more ‘rational’ and self-optimal practices.

Indian authorities should subsume the existing system into its network by refinancing money lenders and accepting social collaterals, finance Nidhis and Chit funds, etc.; instead they erect barriers against such practices on institutions which seek to use the available conducive social infrastructure.

We should of course continue to educate the poor communities about the arithmatics so that wherever possible the poor could act rationally, including proper search of alternatives in their own ‘irrational’ markets.

A regulator who fails to have a grip of the market culture, market practices or interact with its participants continuously to gather market intelligence and spot any significant trends and shifts, is bound to falter. East Asian societies like Indonesia (as spread out), Malaysia, Vietnam (as dense as India) have not tried to supplant the local systems but have sensibly allowed them to co-exist and serve their societies.