It’s a pause, not a pivot by RBI: Rate cut hopes pushed out for now

It’s a pause, not a pivot by RBI: Rate cut hopes pushed out for now
Source: IANS
  • RBI’s pause could be a prolonged one as the path of monetary policy remains fraught with risks.
  • Surprise rate hikes by the Bank of Australia and Bank of Canada in June, after a pause suggests central banks are not yet done with the hike cycle.
  • Market expects RBI to review its stance again in August, if monsoon is normal and risks to commodity prices abate.
The road ahead for monetary policy continues to remain fraught with risks. As expected, the rate setting committee of the Reserve Bank of India held on to benchmark rates yet again at its June review, but there is no change in its stance. The Reserve Bank of India Monetary Policy Committee retained the repo rate, or the lending rate of the central bank, at 6.5%, but this is not a pivot. This is the second straight policy in which rate has been held showing that the rate hike cycle may have peaked for now. Markets were penciling in a rate cut towards the end of this year, as the inflation print in April came in at 4.7%. “Being in the inflation tolerance band is not enough. Our goal is to bring inflation to 4%,” RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das said on Thursday.

Fixed income experts and economists believe that all expectations of a rate cut are off the table for now, as risks to both growth and inflation remain elevated. Economists were unanimous in their expectations ahead of the policy statement on a pause. However, the surprise rate hikes announced by the Bank of Australia and Bank of Canada in June have spooked markets. Bank of Australia too has hiked rates in June to 4.1% this month while Bank of Canada benchmark hiked rates to 4.75% hours before RBI’s announcement.

Economists are of the view that the RBI too is keeping the door open for further hikes, given that risks to inflation are not yet over. It is noteworthy that the pause in rate hike comes after the benchmark rate was hiked by 250 basis points since May 2022 and a breather was only taken in the April policy this year. Like many other developed economies, the central bank’s prolonged pause is now a certainty.

Rate Cut Hopes Delayed Further

Even though RBI has lowered its inflation projection for FY24 at 5.1% from the earlier estimates of 5.2%, the risks are still elevated. “We will keep Arjuna’s eye on inflation,” said Das. He added, “MPC will remain vigilant and will take further policy action as and when required to keep inflation expectations anchored and bring inflation down to 4%” Economists are interpreting this as a prolonged pause. Says Lakshmi Iyer, CEO-Investment & Strategy, Kotak Investment Advisors, “Given global macro headwinds still visible, the members did not feel appropriate to change their stance. It looks like the market wait for rate cuts just got longer, as we saw Canada policy makers announce a surprise rate hike. Key incoming data dependency will continue to be the order of the day. Policy maker guard rails remain. Bonds may continue its sideways movement and continue to track global bond yields specifically US treasuries.”

India may be in a sweet spot, but since global central banks are still hawkish and clearly not done with the hikes, RBI has chosen to retain the pause for now. Economists expect that the MPC will take a call in August 2023, the RBI will have enough data on El Nino and its potential impact on inflation before it decides on any rate cut. BY August, the Fed funds there will be clarity on the path of the US Fed’s fund rate too. If both these factors remain benign, then the RBI MPC could look at changing its stance to “neutral” in August.

Market participants are unanimous on the possibility of a prolonged pause. Naveen Kulkarni, Chief Investment Officer, Axis Securities PMS, expects an extended pause on interest rates from the regulator in the near future. While the inflation is expected to hover above the tolerance limit in FY24, the RBI has marginally reduced its inflation forecast to 5.1% vs 5.2% in the previous policy.

Growth And Inflation Are Evenly Balanced For Now

India’s economy exited FY23 with GDP growth of 7.2%, which was better than estimates. This combined with retail inflation dipping to an 18-month low, both growth and inflation appear to be evenly balanced. While rural demand continues to be weak, the recent hikes in MSP and normal monsoon could come to the rescue. However, there still may be some spillover risks to inflation. Keeping the risks in mind, the RBI has kept its growth projection for the current financial year (FY24) unchanged at 6.5%. This comes at the backdrop of the World Bank revising India’s GDP forecast downwards by 30 bps earlier in the week.

The Indian economy and financial sector stand out as strong and resilient, and domestic macroeconomic fundamentals are strengthening. Rural demand is on a revival path,” said Das adding, “GDP growth in 2022-23 turned out to be stronger than anticipated and is holding up well. Highlights financial stability concerns, impact of rate hikes.”