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Russia-Ukraine crisis further complicates matters for RBI, its MPC

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When one looks back and compares, it feels like the policy stimulus responses during an unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic were easy to manage. Exiting the stimulus in the thick of geopolitical risks has just made the equation a difficult one to crack 

RBI's MPC did see Ukraine-Russia tension as a bigger risk than omicron -  The Economic Times

It is clear that governments and central banks, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) included, across the world are looking for an opportune moment to exit from stimulus mode and drain out excess liquidity. In its February monetary policy, the RBI deferred the normalisation of policy rates because the weakness in India’s growth recovery continues and it is outweighed by the worryingly high ‘global inflation’.

A few weeks after the policy, global dynamics have changed with rising geopolitical uncertainties following the Russia-Ukraine conflict war, and the consequent sanctions imposed by the West. The ‘normalisation process’, which was difficult, could get worse, mainly because we are moving further into the conundrum of higher inflation and lower growth (at least globally). The MPC will have to delve on how the exogenous geopolitical risk will impact inflation and growth spillovers in the middle of a gradual exit from the accommodative monetary policy.

Firstly, the Economist points out that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is likely to isolate Russia’s economy. The immediate global implications will be in terms of higher inflation, lower growth, and disruptions in the financial markets via deeper sanctions. However, the good news is that the impact on India’s growth is likely to be limited as Russia is not India’s major trading partner with just 0.8 percent share in India’s export and 1.5 percent of its imports.

What’s worrying is the indirect spillovers of a broader growth slowdown. This is important in the context that the MPC has judged that India’s growth recovery is incomplete, and policy support remains inevitable. The IMF, in January, slashed the global growth forecast for 2022 and 2023 by 50 bps and 70 bps respectively due to Omicron-associated restrictions. If global growth weakness emerges and there is further downward revision, India’s buoyant recovery could take a set-back via the trade channel. Also, if supply bottlenecks emerge, the manufacturing and infrastructure sector could have notable repercussions. Given the MPC’s higher weightage to growth over inflation since March 2020, geopolitical risks could make the MPC remain ‘accommodative’ for a longer time.

On the other hand, near-term inflation will play spoilsport. The ‘oil monster’ has woken up from its slumber, boiling at about $100 per barrel, and is likely to remain range-bound in the immediate future. This increase in the crude barrel will seep into the retail inflation through direct channels such as increase in pump prices and the palpable impact via freight rate hikes, which companies would eventually pass on to the consumer.

This could push wholesale inflation higher for a couple of months, but high base-effect of the previous year is likely to temper the spikes. The headline retail inflation number may not come down to the MPC’s inflation forecast of 4.5 percent for 2022-23. The three-month ahead and one-year ahead inflation expectations, which dipped recently as per RBI’s survey forecasts, could see an immediate upward shift for the shorter time horizon.

Inflation in the next couple of months will be high owing to supply side disruptions. Thus, RBI Deputy Governor Michael Patra’s comments in the minutes are important. He points that inflation led by supply constraints cannot be stabilised by monetary policy instruments. Thus, one can infer that change in the ‘accommodative stance’ and raising policy rates could be further delayed.

The one area where the RBI will have a significant intervention will be in the external sector management. The current account deficit is likely to swell due to rising crude oil imports. In addition, with the expected normalisation of monetary policy and rate hikes by key advanced economies, foreign portfolio outflows could weigh on the balance of payments scenario. Ashima Goyal, emeritus professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, is of the view that interest-sensitive foreign flows are still a small percentage of the Indian market, and, therefore, potential outflows are a miniscule portion of India’s forex reserves (pegged at around $630 billion). With rising imports and likely portfolio outflows as a reaction to geopolitical and monetary policy normalisations, balance of payments and currency management will be more critical than gradual normalisation.

The headwinds from the geopolitical risks coupled with the expected policy normalisation by advanced economies have pushed the RBI’s MPC in a tricky position where there are no easy answers. The added challenges of global growth slowdown spillovers led by global value chains bottlenecks will be an important determinant to look out for. Near-term inflation spikes if led by supply shortages/disruptions is unlikely to shift the policy stance to ‘neutral’ in the coming policy.

When one looks back and compares, it feels like the policy stimulus responses during an unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic were easy to manage. Exiting the stimulus in the thick of geopolitical risks has just made the equation a difficult one to crack.

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