The Reserve Bank of India's decision to retain the policy interest rates and the CRR (cash reserve ratio) at their existing levels is entirely in line with market expectations. But the decision could not have been easy. There were strong reasons that would have justified a rate hike, or for that matter even a cut in the rate. High up in the first category is the stubbornly high inflation, which has remained above 9 per cent for 12 months in a row. Despite food inflation moderating sharply, November's inflation rate of 9.11 per cent, marginally down from the October figure, is a cause for worry. Quite ominously, the non-food manufactured product inflation, which the RBI regards as the ‘core inflation', rose to 7.9 per cent (from 7.6 per cent in October), reflecting higher input costs. The sharp upward revision of inflation figures for September to 10 per cent is another worrying development; it raises fears of similar revisions for subsequent months. On the other side, the clamour for a rate cut has centred on the fact that a rapidly slowing economy, especially in the industrial sector, requires a boost. Under the circumstances, the RBI's decision to maintain the status quo is sober and well considered. It ensures continuity in seeking to strike a balance between the often conflicting goals of reining in inflation and encouraging growth.
In its second-quarter policy statement (October 25), the central bank hinted at a pause in future interest rate hikes, while giving itself room to address short-term growth issues and concerns. While both inflation and inflation expectations are currently above the comfort level for the RBI, the pressures are likely to abate in the coming months, notwithstanding high crude prices and the sharp depreciation of the rupee. The year-end target of 7 per cent for inflation is retained. However, downside risks to growth have clearly increased owing to a combination of domestic factors and a deteriorating global economy. As matters stand, a growth rate of 7.6 per cent for the current year, projected by the RBI in October, will be difficult to achieve. The central bank is not hedging its bets when it says that “from this point on, monetary policy actions are likely to reverse the cycle, responding to the risks to growth.” However, as the sharp downslide in rupee shows, monetary policy must be prepared to deal with unforeseen contingencies, many of which are likely to occur due to factors outside its domain.