Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is RBI handling inflation correctly?: Part 1

Nowhere in the recent economic history of India, has an issue that is so well debated and polarized as the inflation/ overheating debate going on India circles. Now, the question has changed slightly from "is India overheating" to whether Indian central bank (RBI) is correctly handling the overheating. Inflation has spiked from around 4% to over 6% now and RBI has recently gone through a round of interest rate hikes that pushed the interest rates from around 7% last year to over 13% now. Simultaneously, it has hiked the reserve rates (that will prevent banks from giving more loans) and allowed the rupee to appreciate against the dollar. As the stakes in Indian economy are growing bigger and bigger, different parties are taking sides on what are the implications of the policy. The market has voted with its foot by crashing the Sensex (it has recovered partly though as i write this) and analysts have smashed the policies. I myself have written a couple of articles arguing against the RBI's policy. Here, I'm giving the other side of the picture. So, what is happening and what will be the implications on various parties concerned - Indian poor, middle class, corporates, exporters, government, foreign investors?

Great Indian Growth:
First, what is happening? India is on a big boom cycle since 2003 and a lot of people have come to begun that the time has come for India to get to the center stage and rightly so. The growth rates have gone up over 9% from a dormant 6% rates 3 years ago, and the efforts of reforms during the previous regime is finally paying off. The fundamentals look good - a nation with atleast 250 million people with reasonable spending power, a vast network of well bred universities (atleast 25 of the institutions are now in the elite category, including the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS & IISc), a great history, center of major trading routes in Asia, and a vast network of expatriates providing free diplomacy and act as conduits for knowledge and economic exchange. India is simply in the best possible position for development, so far, and here is the link for India's scorching growth prediction.

Oh no... not so soon. However, too many things happened and the growth was simply too fast for the system to handle and the overheating signs have been showing its ugly teeth now. 6% core inflation shows nothing and honestly, I believe the RBI doesnt care as much about that. What is dangerous is a precarious position in asset markets. Indian infrastructure and housing development, along with even good corporate stocks, couldnt withstand a sudden barrage of this huge money flood. House prices in Indian major cities have gone up by over 300% in 3 years, stock index appreciated over 300% in the mean time, real-estate and commercial property have gone up by over 5 times in a few places, and all these dwarf the 6% core inflation rate that is mainly showing global inflation in commodity prices. And all these were fed with cheap credit, and loan growth is at a dangerously high 30%/year. The condition is really risky now.

Indications of overheating:
Housing: Rocketing house prices where people are willing to pay $200,000 for some second-grade apartments in not-so-good localities when the country's per-capita income is just around $1000/year is definitely a scary sign. To put things in perspective, in Seattle (the home of Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft) good apartments in nice localities can be got for $400,000 when the median household income is over $100,000, and people fear overheating here! So, the hard-earning middle class is priced out, while a lot of people have dangerously accumulated huge amount of loans to buy white elephants. In the last 1-2 years RBI has issued a lot warning regarding this situation, and asked banks to cool down housing loans, but banks have not turned their ear to it.

Real Estate: Its not just the houses that are too expensive. Commercial property is an unexpected peak where shady locations in Bombay and Delhi seek prices that would shame even Manhattan. This has affected expansion plans for many hotels (nation of India has less hotel rooms than the city of New York), many companies are holding their plans to open offices in Mumbai and Bangalore, and even retailers are affected by this skyrocketing prices. At some point the cost of doing business will cross a tipping point, and India will no longer be a favourite service/production outsourcing even with low wages, if we dont address this real-estate quandary.

Stocks: And the stock markets have been affected by this irrational exuberance. While the fundamentals are definitely good, the prices (in terms of P/E ratios) are really high for an emerging country, enough to price out many serious investors. And a lot of investment is in the hot-money section (foreign institutional investors and domestic buyers trading on margin) that could vaporize at a degree above room temperature. While, a good stock appreciation encourages the corporations to expand more, over-appreciation and over-hype could cloud us on crucial things like efficiency and cost-management, and over-paying on unworthy assets like what the Japanese did in 1980s. It is time for some correction to more moderate levels (probably around the 10-11K region in the Sensex).

Savings: For an Asian country, India's saving rate is not impressive. While, the Europeans and Americans have social security and good nets (comparatively) and the Asians have good domestic savings, Indians have neither. India is on a complete blow-out cycle, learning to spend from the Americans, before even they have learnt to earn from them. Personal credit growth is rocketing, and unlike their previous generation, people are not afraid to go on big loans for flat-screen TVs and unaffordable houses. Automobiles are overcrowding before the roads are even built and Indian researchers are worrying more about obesity and cholestrol than hunger and poverty! Indian domestic consumption as visible from rocketing non-oil imports have also caused the current account deficits to zoom (imports much greater than exports) inspite of a healthy growth in export industries like IT, Auto, Pharma and Chemicals. Indians are currently just over-consuming and a developing country cannot afford to have deficits for long.

Thus, the current overheating, if left unchecked, could rock the Indian boat and the Japan's painful experience from over-exuberance in 80's and America's experience in 90's should not be forgotten. Brimming prices of Housing, stocks, commercial properties and runaway loan growth has already given enough indications that the supply-side pressures from agricultural commodities, oil and metals are just an excuse for the inflationary pressure. RBI has got nothing to do with these latter things, and the solutions are pretty simple and are with the government: Liberalize sectors like power, mining and agriculture and you would see the same benefits. But, we are not arguing about these core principles for now, and RBI with its monetary stick is tackling the runaway overheating than core-inflation with interest rate hikes. Commodity inflation is just a pretext for RBI to pull the government to take action (governments are the biggest beneficiaries of inflation and low interest rates, as they are usually the biggest borrowers). If RBI is even half as intelligent as I would assume them to be, they would know that monetary policies cannot control commodity inflation (no one is going to stop eating food because you increase interest rate by 0.5%) and so it should not be a secret that the recent measures are more against over-heating fears than CPI per se, what many analysts assume it to be.

In the next part let us see, how the current measure are enacted and in the third part how it will individually affect the various players in the game (including us).

(This article has been included as an Op-Ed in Asian Development Bank's E-Newsline)