Certainty in monetary policy

Two big takeaways from today’s monetary policy review are the institution of a formal inflation target and a commitment to consistency in monetary policy

I found two major takeaways from RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan’s press conference this morning following the RBI policy review (where both the policy rate and the cash reserve ratio were held constant).

Firstly, Rajan used this opportunity to set for the bank a long-term inflation target. In a previous review, it had been announced that the RBI was focussed on targeting a 6% inflation rate by January 2016, and that conversations were on between the RBI and the Government regarding setting a formal inflation target.

In today’s review, Rajan took this one step further announcing that after January 2016, the RBI will set its policy rate targeting an inflation rate of 4% +/- 2%. This is extremely significant for for the first time it signifies a primarily inflation-targeting objective for the Reserve Bank of India. Over the last few months Rajan has made several attempts to explain that low and stable inflation is a necessary condition for a high and stable growth rate, and having primed us with this narrative, he has finally committed to a long-term inflation target.

The second important takeaway was the emphasis on consistency in policy. Rajan mentioned that while he is prepared to cut rates when the conditions are ripe, what he doesn’t want to do is to flip-flop on rates. This means he is likely to cut rates in this policy review only if he is confident that the requirement of having to raise rates in the next policy review is going to be low. This is extremely significant, as this kind of a direction is an implicit commitment to both savers and borrowers that they can expect the same direction for a significant amount of time, which means that they can plan better.

While some commentators might be disappointed that rates were not cut today, I think today’s policy review was extremely fruitful and some of the commitments made will have important consequences in the long run. Consistency in policy is an extremely important step, and the adoption of a formal inflation target at a time when global oil and food prices are dropping is excellent timing.

The press conference itself was quite insightful, and the way Rajan and his deputies handled the questions was extremely instructive. For example, one journalist mentioned that we’ve already hit 6% inflation which was the target for January 2016, and asked why rates weren’t cut on that account. Rajan replied that the fact that inflation is 6% today doesn’t imply that it will stay there a year later, and we need to work towards holding it there, and that the holding of rates in today’s review was a step in that direction.

Perverse regulations

So Uber has tied up with PayTM to process its payments without a second factor of authentication in order to comply with RBI regulations. This is a major win-win for both companies. Uber can now gain access to the part of the relatively affluent Indian population that does not own a credit card (this is a significant segment). PayTM now has a compelling reason to sign up users for its Wallet solution, since all Uber customers now form a sort of a captive audience for this solution.

While discussing this on twitter, someone suggested that once the new Payment Bank regulation is brought in by RBI, wallet solution providers such as PayTM can then set themselves up as Payment Banks.

The problem with that is that if PayTM becomes a payment bank then it will have to comply with RBI regulations of second factor authentication and thus Uber users will not be able to use their PayTM wallets (now accounts) for seamless payment!

#Thatzwhy we need strong regulations.

Raghuram Rajan replies to my Pragati article

At least I like to believe that! A couple of weeks back I’d published this article in Pragati (published by the Takshashila Institution, where I work part time as Resident Quant) slamming recent decisions by the Reserve Bank of India to make two factor authentication compulsory and to limit the number of free ATM withdrawals from non-home banks.

My criticism for both these decisions was that they were designed to take money out of the banking system, which would result in a reduction of money supply, and subsequent increase in borrowing costs, thus slowing down India’s economic recovery. I had some other criticisms, too, such as it being none of the RBI’s business to mandate what was essentially a pricing decision between the RBI and the customer, and the perverse incentives the rule created for banks seeking to set up new ATMs.

Could it be that the above regulations are a move by the RBI to curtail money supply without necessarily doing the politically tricky task of raising interest rates?

If it is (and it is a very remote possibility), we should commend the RBI for what will then amount to be a sneaky decision. If not, it must be mentioned that though noble in thought, the two decisions are completely bereft of economic and financial reasoning.

I had written.

So an article published an hour back in Mint quotes Rajan on these two policies, where he defends them. On the two factor authentication issue, he is surprisingly defensive, offering nothing more than a statement that banks and companies need to follow the rules and not try to circumvent them in the name of innovation. Rajan then added that he is looking into permitting transactions up to  a certain limit that don’t need two factor authentication – something I had pointed out in my Pragati piece.

On the ATM issue, I (and other news organisations who I got my news from) seem to have got my information wrong. Apparently currently regulation exists that five ATM transactions per month from non-home banks are supposed to be free, and that is being cut down to three. Rajan clarifies (as reported in Mint today) that the new regulation only allows banks to charge customers beyond the first three transactions in a month, and they are not obliged to do so. He talked about the perverse incentives that the earlier regime (where banks were obliged to permit a number of free ATM transactions from non home banks) created.

My apologies for not reading the regulations correctly (of course a part of the blame has to go to the newspapers that reported it thus! 🙂 ). I admit I should have checked from multiple sources on that one.

Coming to the point of the post, why do I think that Rajan is responding to my Pragati piece? You might argue that it might simply be a case of correlation-causation – that it might be coincidental that Rajan has spoken about two issues that I had highlighted in that post. However, there are two reasons as to why I believe that Rajan was responding to my post.

The first has to do with the combination of subjects. While the two regulations (ATM withdrawals and two factor authentication ) were widely reported in the media, I haven’t seen any piece apart from mine which addresses these two issues together (I must admit my perusal of Indian media has dropped nowadays given my Twitter and Facebook sabbatical). Given that Rajan has chosen to address these two issues today, it is likely that he is responding to my piece.

The second reason has to do with the timing. The Takshashila Institution sends out a weekly “dispatch” which is a summary of commentary written by its fellows and employees and associates. This is an emailer which contains links to these articles along with short snippets, and a number of fairly influential people (within the government and outside) are on the list of recipients. The latest edition of the Takshashila dispatch went out this morning, and it has a link to my Pragati piece. Now, while Rajan is not on the mailing list (to the best of my knowledge), it is likely that an influencer on the list with access to him brought it up today (it could even be the Mint journalist who has reported the story – that would still count as Rajan, albeit indirectly, responding to my piece). This reaffirms my belief that he was responding to my piece in his comments today!

You might think I’m deluded. So be it!

In which I thulp the RBI

I’m still so pissed off with the Reserve Bank of India doing a Ramanamurthy that I’ve written a serious editorial in Pragati – the Indian National Interest Review (published by the Takshashila Institution). In this piece I take on measures by the RBI to limit ATM transactions and the thing on two factor authorization.

I claim that both these decisions are economically unsound and there is only possibly a farcical explanation for them:

There is perhaps only one idea (more a conspiracy theory) that possibly explains the above decisions from the RBI. Both these decisions, it might be noticed, help push up the usage of hard currency and decrease the levels of bank deposits. Less bank deposits means less money available for banks to lend out, which means that the cost of borrowing from a bank implicitly goes up. Could it be that the above regulations are a move by the RBI to curtail money supply without necessarily doing the politically tricky task of raising interest rates?

If it is (and it is a very remote possibility), we should commend the RBI for what will then amount to be a sneaky decision


The RBI does a Ramanamurthy

This is the second time in a few weeks I’m referring to this scene from Ganeshana Maduve. Please watch it first.

To repeat the story:

Ramanamurthy the owner of the “vaTaara” (a kind of apartment that was popular in Bangalore till the 1980s, with lots of small houses in the same compound) wants to whitewash his house. The residents of the vaTaara  demand that if he whitewashes his house he should whitewash the entire vaTaara. After a long and protracted negotiation, Ramanamurthy agrees to their condition – he doesn’t whitewash his house!

It is a similar story with taxi operators in India. Uber (the Ramanamurthy) figured out a way to bypass RBI’s two factor authentication system and offer seamless payment options for their taxi services. Soon other taxi operators like TaxiForSure and Ola started crying foul saying they too wanted their houses painted, i.e. they too wanted to locate payment servers abroad to accept one factor authentication credit cards.

And now RBI, like the rent controller ubiquitous (in mention only) in movies of the late 80s has stepped in and stopped Ramanamurthy from painting his house, too – they’ve barred Uber from charging in US dollars for Indian rides. It would be interesting to see how the market will develop now.

My personal opinion is that RBI’s insistence on two factor authentication is half-assed. They should make every effort possible to increase the number of credit card (or account-to-account) transactions. On one hand it decreases flow of black money but more importantly it means that people will keep more cash within the banking system (rather than as hard cash) which will have a multiplier effect on money available for lending and all that.

It’s fine to have regulations in place such that credit card fraud is minimized but that doesn’t mean cutting credit card transactions altogether! Hopefully the RBI will see the light of day on this one soon.

USD/INR Volatility

The stated objective of the Reserve Bank of India when it comes to foreign exchange rates is that they want to maintain a “stable” exchange rate, and will step in only to curb volatility. There is no stated level at which the bank seeks to hold the rupee, and so it will intervene only when the rupee is volatile.

In this post, we will look at how the volatility in the USD/INR exchange rate has varied over the last seven years. For purpose of this analysis, we will use a 30-day Quadratic Variation as a measure of volatility (this is a lagging indicator, so the volatility number for today is the QV of the last 30 days).

The following graph shows both the level of USD/INR (black line, left axis) and the quadratic variation (red line, right axis).

Source: Oanda.com Volatility calculated as 30-day Quadratic variation
Source: Oanda.com
Volatility calculated as 30-day Quadratic variation


Notice that for most time periods, irrespective of the exchange rate, the RBI’s stated objectives have been met – the volatility in the exchange rate has been low for large period of time. Volatility of the exchange rate spiked once following the financial meltdown of late 2008 and again towards the end of 2011 (when Europe got into trouble).

It is interesting to note that for all the footage that the sliding rupee has received in the last month or so, the volatility of the rupee has been quite low (compared to the peaks). It will probably take a significantly higher volatility in the rate for the RBI to step in.

It is also interesting to note that in the second half of 2010, even though the rate level was fairly stable, volatility was significant!

Free float and rupee volatility

Following a brief discussion on twitter with @deepakshenoy I’m wondering what’s preventing the RBI from making the rupee fully convertible. The usual argument for full convertibility is that it will make the exchange rates volatile. My argument is that exchange rates are already so volatile that the additional volatility that could stem out of a free float is marginal, and a small price to pay.

The wise men at RBI, though, might argue the precise opposite. They will claim that in terms of already high volatility they wouldn’t want to do anything that might add to volatility, however marginally. This is a constant battle I faced in my last job, of delta improvements. I would frequently argued that when something was already high, making it delta higher was not so bad. I would argue in terms of making systemic changes that would reduce drastically the already high number, rather than focusing on the deltas.

Coming back to the rupee, you can also imagine the wise men talking about some stuff about black money and hawala money and all that. The thing with making the rupee fully convertible would be that hawala would be fully legal now, and the illegal practice would cease to exist. And when something becomes legalized it comes back to the mainstream rather than remaining on the margins, and that is always a good thing.

Then you can expect some strategic affairs experts to bring some national sovereignty and national security argument there. There will be people who will talk about the increase in counterfeit money (since it’ll become easier to “smuggle” rupees into India then), and about how foreign governments might pose a threat to India’s security by manipulating the rupee (who says that threat doesn’t already exist?)!

I don’t know. I don’t find any of these anti-full-convertibility arguments compelling. If we do adopt full convertibility, though, we can at least pay Iran for the oil we get from them, and that might for all you know help tackle inflation. I don’t, however, expect the RBI to act on this.

Letting the rupee float

I’m midway through Shankar Acharya’s Op-Ed in today’s Business Standard, and I realize that along with the interest rate, the exchange rate (USD/INR) is another instrument that the RBI could possibly use in order to control money supply and the level of economic activity in India. Let me explain.

Given that mad growth in petroleum prices have been fundamental to growth in inflation, and that high petroleum prices also impact the oil marketing companies and the government negatively, and that we import most of our petroleum needs, letting the rupee rise above its current level is a mechanism of reining in “realized petroleum prices”. If we were to let the rupee rise, inflation would get tamed (due to imports becoming cheaper), the government’s fiscal deficit would come down (subsidy will be reduced), but exporters will get shoved, and that can depress economic activity in the country. So letting the rupee rise is similar to increasing interest rates.

There are people who question whether the RBI should be controlling exchange rates at all, and wonder if it would be better if it were to float freely. I’ve also taken that view on several occasions in the past, but now that I think of it, there are liquidity concerns. USD/INR, EUR/INR, GBP/INR, etc. have no way near the kind of liquidity that exchange rates between two “developed currencies” (USD/EUR or USD/JPY) have. In other words, the amount of trade that happens in USD/INR is much lower than that of say USD/JPY.

Given this lack of liquidity, if let to float fully, there is a danger that the USD/INR rates can fluctuate wildly. Higher volatility in rates means higher hedging costs for both exporters and importers, and given that our foreign trade is fairly high, a wildly fluctuating exchange rate does no good in policy formulation. From this point of view, it is important that short-term volatility in the exchange rates is curbed, and to that extent I support the RBI’s decision to intervene in the FX markets.

However, if there is a sustained pressure on either side  (say the exchange rate trades for a sustained period at the edge of the “band” that the RBI is allowing the rupee to float in), the RBI should buckle and shift their bands, and let the markets have their way. While short-term volatility is not great, distorting market signals is worse.

An analogy that comes to mind is circuit breakers in the Indian stock market. Earlier, these circuit breakers were in place for all stocks (basically, they dictate that if the stock price fluctuates by more than a certain amount in a certain time period, trading in the stock will be halted for a certain amount of time). However, recent regulations have removed these circuit breakers for stocks on which derivatives are traded, which are the more liquid stocks. The circuit breakers, however, are still in place for the less liquid stocks

It’s a similar story in the FX markets. Given that USD/INR is still not too liquid (in terms of volumes), it is important that we have circuit breakers (i.e. RBI intervention). Once it reaches a certain “critical mass” (in terms of volumes ), however, the RBI can step away and let the rupee float.

(I haven’t looked at any data while writing this. All judgments are based on my perception of how certain numbers shape up)