Macro Imbalance and the need for a new framework agreement

My article in Businessline today.

The chorus for reduction of Real interest rates as the panacea for the current economic stall is getting louder. From commentators to administrators to economists that seems the only item in the menu these days.

Interest rates (nominal and real), Inflation, Forex rates and Reserves, Investments, Capital Account convertibility and Foreign Investment Flows (all from the input or causative side) and Growth, Output and Employment on the resultant side are all intricately interconnected. There seems a need to look at things comprehensively and evolve a framework agreement between RBI and the Government reflecting this reality.

Illustration of Inter connectedness and imbalance

People buy things in advance if either it is likely to be costlier in the future when they need it or for de-risking (like Gold and Real estate). But what if the realized prices later consistently prove to be less? Would people still buy upfront or would it indicate some discrepancy? Lets see it in the context of forex rates.

The actual rates post facto have consistently been lower (far lower) than the Forward rates (rates quoted today for $ that will be delivered say 3, 6 months later).

The first one is determined based on the difference in inflation rates and the second one based on difference in nominal interest rates. If the Real Interest Rates are deducted from nominal, then the movement in both should be determined by difference in inflation. This should hold but for changes in outlook and situational factors and the policy induced difference in Real interest rates.

The persistence of actual rate being way less than Forward rate represents a serious imbalance and causes plenty of problems in domestic competitiveness, flow of foreign currency, investment absorptive capacity, etc. For example, if apples (representative of a basket of goods) are selling at Rs 50 in India and $1 overseas, then exchange rate should be ideally 1$ = Rs 50. Say, next year Indian apples have suffered an inflation of 10 per cent and have gone up to Rs 55. But apples overseas have suffered an inflation of 2 per cent and gone up to $1.02. Then the exchange rate should be Rs 55/1.02 = 53.93. But if the exchange rate is kept at say Rs 51, then the Indian exporter will get 1.02$ X 51 = 52.02 Rs /apple while he is able to get Rs 55 selling it domestically. Why would he export? To overcome this, we should allow the Re to correct. This will happen if we match the $ supplies into India with its net imports

Contours of a new framework agreement 

The framework agreement between the Government and RBI should cover all the essential variables not just one or two in isolation. Such an agreement should cover the following.

Limits on Forex Inflows: The inflows should be calibrated to match the absorptive capacity of the economy and its investment needs.  While Capital account convertibility can remain, RBI has to limit the quantum either at total levels or under each major sources of inflow. Reserves are a costly loss making insurance asset (much like Gold in individuals’ hands) whose cost are far more than the difference between interest earned and paid. It has effect on the real economy. The limits can be +/- 1-2% of what is required to plug the CAD or 6 months imports +/- 2 weeks.

Maintenance of Competitiveness: Competitiveness comprises two elements – the physical and the currency. Physical competitiveness comes from technology, scale, skills, IPRs, and natural resource endowments over which neither RBI nor Government may have control. Currency needs to stay competitive which can be achieved only if it floats freely to reflect the inflation differential.

Forex rates: RBI should be mandated to maintain the REER values within 2/3% of Re’s REER value after correcting the massive divergence now on a one-time basis.

Recalibrating REER Values: Again instead of using the general inflation numbers of the countries it should be the inflation of major input costs (including interest costs) of goods and services traded between India and its major trading partners. This basket may keep changing but there are real dangers of monolithic baskets or even currencies as a whole which are governed by many factors other than what determines competitiveness.

Real interest rates – Real interest rates should be mandated to be within 5-10 bps spread over interest rates in competing countries and those investing into India. High real interest rates and overvalued currency may encourage debt flows more than investments in real assets and FDIs.

Inflation: Divergence between estimated actuals and realized actuals after the end of period is difficult to control even for items like Forex rates where almost all participants are educated, trained and hence rational. It becomes even more hazardous in inflationary expectation. It’s time we move on to inflation targets for 3-4 major groups. Food inflation is far more politically sensitive and socially damaging than perhaps white goods or real estate.

Stability of Laws:  The last 4-5 years have seen sudden sharp changes in rules governing provisioning, NPAs, default status, etc. and levels of support to distressed assets even those which are clean but facing stretched cash flows. Changes should factor in reasonable adjustment period.

Quid Pro Quo

If these are corrected, governments should undertake to do the following:

  • To stay within the 3-4% fiscal deficit targets,
  • To smoothen MSP increases based on fundamentals rather than subject to political whims and fancies,
  • To curtail interest declared on mandated savings like PF, PPF etc.,and
  • Not to announce arbitrary minimum wages.

The current economic impasse is arising out of highly overvalued currency, uncompetitive real interest rates, inflows far in excess of absorptive capacity and inflation which looks more western and 1st world’s. The entire burden of causing growth and employment hence falls on the elected Government which has to substitute for the private sector which has been rendered uncompetitive due to these imbalances.

A comprehensive agreement on the above lines would go very far in kick starting growth and employment once again.

Flexibility and Agility are Virtues

Ironically almost a century ago, as the noted economist Irving Fisher in his The Money Illusion quotes Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of Ex-chequer UK as follows: “Since the War, central bank reforms have been instituted in Albania, Austria, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Hungary, …India, Russia, South Africa. In all these countries, except India, not one central bank has copied the Bank Act of England; but with that exception, all have adopted some system which is similar to the Federal Reserve Act” which provides for an ‘elastic currency’… the greater elasticity of the Federal Reserve System (is) the main reason for the higher prosperity of America”.

What was true then of America is true today of China which has proved far more nimble footed and what was true of Bank of England is true of RBI, which treats cast in stone monolithic approach as a virtue.

(The writer is the author of Making Growth Happen in India, Sage Publications).

 

Is it Time to rework our Monetary Policy Framework?

http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/what-should-rbi-give-weightage-to-decide-policy-rates-all-you-want-to-know/941225/

My article with the title above (different in title between the Print version and e-paper version) appears in Financial Express today.

 

The government seems to be in a bit of bind over both employment and growth, not for all its as own making. One of the chief contributory to this morass is the inappropriate way the objectives of our monetary policy have been fixed or evolved over the last 6-7 years. The Chart shows clearly the increasing misalignment between the inflation, external value of Rupee (as reflected by REER) and the interest rates caused by the recent shifts in our monetary policy. The Chart uses the WPI instead of the new found CPI which is 57% out of control of RBI’s policies as the report itself admits.

Two main components as it operates in our Monetary Policy Framework are (i) to target a consumer price inflation of 4% with a tolerance of 2%. Both the variable and its levels are recent developments, and (ii) to aim at orderly conduct of the forex markets without seeking to target any particular rates.

Fundamental flaws

Firstly, in both these, the targets are fixed without reference to any end goals in mind. As if these are desirable self-actualising end-goals in themselves. In economics everything is interconnected – inflation, interest rates, growth, employment, productivity, cost competitiveness, etc. To seek a deterministic nominal goal in a web of influences looks naïve at best.

Secondly, the objective that the economy desires to achieve may vary depending upon the stage of growth. It can vary for the same economy from time to time. For EU it is kick-starting growth now, for China is to stabilise it at a high rate, for Japan it is to grow – any growth – even if very low by international standards. For US it was achieving any growth after the meltdown but now slowly crossing over to stabilising inflation. A nominal fixed target does not address these contextual concerns.

Thirdly, economics is mostly about balance and trade-offs between what in general are opposing interests – buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, workers and producers, savers and investors, inflation and growth and so on. One isn’t sure how a nominal deterministic inflation number can work towards an optimal or at least desired equilibrium between savers and investors, between domestic investments and imports at all times even in the medium term.

Lastly, as is explained below, there is excessive and suicidal reliance on the nominal rather than real variables, which is what may be causing the current problem.

No basis

There seems no theoretical basis for the inflation targeting or its levels – not from IMF, not from Basle norms which aims at financial stability or RBI. While nothing can be exact about economics and hence a band is necessary for targets, a 2% tolerance on 4%, is like permitting Usain Bolt to run on his track or the adjacent tracks on either side and the penalties for trespass being imposed 2 Olympics away.

Just orderly movement of forex rates is no policy. When it is clear that it has a significant impact on domestic capacity utilisation, jobs and growth to just aim to only curb the volatility but not be concerned with the values is naïve shirking, much like driving without violating any traffic guidelines or speed limits but towards a wrong destination. By keeping the currency over valued for far too long (over a decade now), we are re-creating conditions of 1991 crisis.

Way forward

Keynes had brought out the true nature of the real and the nominal economy, the rigidities exhibited by the real and how to tweak it by using the nominal to achieve real goals. The current constant 4% inflation (nominal) target can in no way balance the interests between savers and investors, forever. The government should move to a 2% +/- 0.25% real interest rate regime. Whether the inflation is 4% or 9%, such a real interest spread of 2% will be a fair compensation to savers. It will also not curb investment urges if what investors have to pay out is in line what they recover from the market through inflation in prices. This is a sort of inflation proofing both savers and investors.

Such a floating nominal interest (but largely fixed real interest rates) regime will largely ensure that fresh investments and savings do not grind to a halt.

But the existing outstanding stock of savings are in fixed nominal interest regime, which poses problems. It is therefore necessary to move to a floating nominal rate regime and increase its proportion. In the last few years, Bank loans have largely become floating rate with optional repayment and a significant progress has been achieved. It is necessary to increase the proportion of floating rate bank deposits from the savers side as well.

The second thing that is capable of derailing growth and employment in an open economy is the forex rates. An overvalued currency makes imports cheaper, exports far less remunerative which affects domestic employment and growth. A 20-22% overvalued currency as on date is a killer. Government should mandate RBI to walk it along in an orderly manner along the real values. RBI and Government should agree to maintain exchange rates within a band of 97 -103 REER. This REER should be calculated on a base year that is sound when most economic parameters (CAD, fiscal deficit, inflation, growth, etc.) are as close to our desired objective. As it stands now, 2004-05 is one such year. The government should also tailor its inward investment policies accordingly and the degree of capital account convertibility tuned appropriately.

Currently policy rates it appears are decided mostly or solely on inflationary expectations. This can result in fear mongering. In deciding the policy rates, perhaps the actual for the past 2 quarters should be given equal weightage.

By moving to the real from the nominal on both interest and forex accounts, we may have learnt the right lessons from Keynes. Excessive reliance on the nominal on both accounts have made India underperform its potential in the last 4-5 years.

 

 

How high Real Interest Rates can trip Modi in 2019

this artcile of mine has appeared in Financial express today (29/sept, 2017). Link below.

http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/here-is-what-can-trip-narendra-modi-in-general-elections-2019/875051/

Unedited Version:

RBI’s Interest Rates can trip Modi in 2019

V Kumaraswamy 

Ask any shop keeper, or the lonely looking private security guards, unemployed youth in urban slums or interior towns, or the taxi drivers as to what their main issue today is and pat comes the reply: be rozgari

Not many expected Vajpayee to lose 2004 with the groundswell of national passion over Kargil, Golden Quadrilateral, relative peace and quiet in domestic scenario, great government finances and the political networking he cultivated.  Yet he lost.

The voter at the booth is not going to be thankful for how much wholesale corruption has come down (retail is still alive and throbbing), degree of digitisation India has achieved, how benign inflation is, etc. These are at best hygiene factors which can easily be washed away if joblessness persists. Without a job, a stable one at that, he can’t proposer.

High Manufacturing Real Interest Rates (RIRs).

If more people have to be converted from being losers during the on-going reforms to gainers, we need rapid job creation. Services sector (IT, BPOs, Call Centres, and Telecom) created jobs by the buckets till about 2011-12 but have reached stagnation now and have even started becoming uncompetitive now threatening imminent job losses.  Agri sector is just incapable of creating further jobs; rather it would release lots that need to be absorbed.

Employment should come from only manufacturing and here is where the real interest rates facing Indian industry is proving an insurmountable barrier not just a hurdle. The accompanying chart compares the Real Interest Rates (RIRs) between China and RIRs facing Indian manufacturing.  Manufacturing RIRs are  derived by deducting manufacturing inflation from the nominal interests facing manufacturing sector. For the last over a decade Indian Mfg RIR is about 7.21% versus China’s 2.92% – (i.e 4.29% over China’s) a huge hole for anyone to be interested in investing in Indian manufacturing.

It is a mistake to compare the general RIR which is just 2.04% over China, the country with which we have maximum non-oil trade deficit. The General inflation is contaminated by Fuel oil, Food which have no bearing whatsoever for studying manufacturing investment competitiveness.

Why has it become important now?

Just but for one year, Indian Manufacturing RIRs have been higher than China since 1991. So why has it started affecting investment sentiments now. Starting Jan 2014, duties for imports from ASEAN has become Zero virtually (S Korea is not far behind) making India’s trade borders completely open. China (even with import duties) has cost structures lower than ASEAN for several commodities.

India’s capital account has also been steadily opening up and for practical purposes it is completely open. Even the per annum limits on debt are periodically reviewed and enhanced without even waiting for the year turns.

With open trade and capital flows one has to be more sharply competitive. Added to this is the 25-30% overall surplus capacity in Industry. Who would dare to invest with a huge handicap on interest rates and surplus capacities. It is better to source goods from China or set up facilities there and sell in India, which exports jobs.

Sources of competitiveness

As mentioned earlier, agriculture and services look spent forces as far as employment creation goes.  It rests on manufacturing to create jobs, for which it needs to be competitive, which has to come from any of the 4 factors of production or natural resource endowments (part of Land).

India has tied itself up in knots where land is concerned.  Our socialistic mindset has made a grand backdoor re-entry through LARR and a plethora of court rulings, restriction on land transfer and change in usage, etc. Any acquisition takes 5 years – far beyond the patience time for an entrepreneur to keeping waiting with his ideas.  India has 375 people per sqkm where China has 142 (2015), increasing the pressure on land. So land as a source of competitive strength is ruled out.

Labour can be a source of strength given the wage levels now. But for that to happen we need to repurpose our education. Instead of (or perhaps alongwith)  BE(Mechanical) and B Tech (Chemical) we need 8th Std (textile printing), 10th std (BPO assistant), 12th std (Source coders), etc. i.e. fit for purpose specialisation kicking in at far younger ages. This can perhaps reduce capital invested for turning an unemployed into productive force as well supply the skills that would increase productivity. Such increased productivity can make the labour cheap per output unit.

That leaves Interest rates. Even enterprise is a function of interest rates beyond a point, where it translates entrepreneurism into investments. With excess capacities and high RIRs in Manufacturing, no one will feel tempted to invest in India.

High real interest rates (when the whole of rest of world is underperforming) and an increasingly politically stable India is attracting excess of $s, that cannot be absorbed by a stalling investment economy. Oversupply / unutilised $s in the forex market causes its prices to decrease. With it, it brings down import prices and makes our exports un-remunerative. This causes imports to flare up. Sure we are also gaining in petrol, prices of Chinese goods, goods from ASEAN, etc. But then the jobs in making them is happening overseas. What’s more important now  – employment or lower inflation? People who are gloating at low inflation are looking at just one side of the equation

In the last 6-7 years our Monetary economists have been failing their equilibrium mathematics exams, with their highly out of context imported monetary theories. But the political student to be detained may be Modi’s Government in 2019.

(The writer is the Author of Making Growth Happen in India (Sage Publications))