The real meaning of independence for RBI

January 18, 2017 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:46 pm IST

The demonetisation decision has led several observers to express concern about the autonomy and institutional integrity of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Many of those against demonetisation on a matter of principle (or practice) are blaming the RBI for ‘caving in’ to the government’s diktat and surrendering its independence. But in holding that view, they are betraying a great deal of misunderstanding about precisely what autonomy for the RBI entails. The RBI is not a self-governing Republic.

A cursory reading of the RBI Act (Section 7 on Management) lays out things quite unambiguously. Part (1) of Section 7 states: “The Central Government may from time to time give such directions to the Bank as it may, after consultation with the Governor of the Bank, consider necessary in the public interest.” Parts (2) and (3) spell out the roles for the Central Board and Governor. There is a clear ‘seniority’ principle with (1) taking precedence over (2) which takes precedence over (3).

Unsurprisingly, the decision to demonetise high-denomination currency was taken by the government in public interest after consultation with the RBI. Whether the government or the RBI issued the first memo on the matter is just squabbling over the irrelevant. The RBI Board did its duty by ratifying/recommending the action and it was then left to the Governor and his officers to implement the decision. Any other sequence of events would be disturbing. Surely, the RBI could not take a policy decision as major as demonetisation unilaterally. Nor indeed could it turn it down unilaterally.

Ensuring low and stable inflation

It is critical to understand what autonomy and institutional integrity mean for a central bank like the RBI. The RBI, like most central banks, consists of technocrats and bureaucrats who are unelected and not directly accountable to the people. In a democracy, the final responsibility of all policy decisions must lie with the elected representatives of the people, either the government or Parliament or both. The notion of central bank independence first gained traction in the advanced economies when it was noticed that elected governments often chose to disregard price stability in favour of growth, especially in the run-up to elections. This behaviour only raised and entrenched inflationary expectations to the medium-term detriment of the economy.

The central goal of central bank independence was to ensure low and stable inflation via the autonomous conduct of monetary policy. It is important to note that is not the central bank’s discretion to decide what the targeted rate of inflation ought to be (or indeed what the optimum rate of growth should be); that remains the job of the elected government. But once that target is laid down, the central bank must ensure that it meets those targets with complete operational autonomy.

In India, until the monetary policy framework and an inflation target were spelt out last year, it was the RBI which decided what a reasonable rate of inflation should be. To be accurate, it was the RBI Governor — just one person — who had complete control over monetary policy goals and decisions. That was vesting too much independence in an unelected official. The proper way to conduct monetary policy is via explicit goals laid out by the elected government which are then executed by a group of experts — a Monetary Policy Committee — rather than one individual, without any interference from the government.

Still, on the setting of interest rates, even before the creation of an explicit monetary policy framework, the RBI has had its autonomous way under successive governors and with different political dispensations in office. This has led to tensions between the Finance Ministry and the RBI but rarely, if ever, any encroachment on the RBI’s space.

Debt management

Consider also RBI’s roles beyond the conduct of monetary policy. The RBI is the government’s debt manager, a function that has been proposed to be hived out to an independent debt management agency but resisted by the central bank. The separation of debt management from the RBI is not an assault on the RBI’s independence by the government. Instead, it is to remove the conflict of interest that exists in the RBI’s functions of setting interest rates, and management of the government’s debt. The latter could influence the former when it ought not to. The RBI’s independence to carry out its primary mandate, the efficient conduct of monetary policy, will only be enhanced by hiving off the debt management function.

The third major role played by the RBI is in the regulation of the banking system. Like any regulatory agency, RBI must be allowed to operate at an arm’s length from the government while doing its work. Again, there is no evidence to suggest that the government has interfered in any way. Remember that the government plays a separate role in the banking sector as the owner of public sector banks which control nearly 70 per cent of all lending. The RBI is the regulator, not owner, of banks. Unsurprisingly, both the RBI and the government play critical and visible roles in banking but that does not mean that they are stepping on one another’s turf.

There has not been any assault on the RBI’s autonomy — in the setting of interest rates or in the regulation of banks or in other operational spheres. The government, when it exercises its right as sovereign, whether to set an inflation target or to demonetise high-value currency, is acting well within the norms of the law and the spirit of democracy. Any attempt by unelected officials to obstruct would only be abuse of their autonomy.


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