India Insight

from MacroScope:

India’s central bank battles alone in inflation struggle

INDIA-ECONOMY/RATES What more does India's central bank have to do? Last week data showed March inflation rising to almost 9 percent on an annual basis. More importantly, core inflation is above 7 percent for the first time in 3 years meaning demand-side pressures are rising fast. And that's despite the Reserve Bank of India raising interest rates eight times since last March.

The inflation data comes just after a quarterly HSBC report based on purchasing managers indexes showed that inflation in India seemed impervious to monetary policy tightening.

The truth, is the inflation-fighting central bank has little backup from the government which remains stubbornly in spending mode. Its foot-dragging on reform and foreign investment contributes towards keeping food price inflation high. This year's fiscal deficit target is 4.8 percent of GDP and even this
is seen as optimistic.

"What India really needs is to have domestic demand slowing down quite rapidly but the government is not prepared to risk that,"says Claire Dissaux, investment strategist at Millenium Global in London.

The RBI has repeatedly said it shouldn't have to do all the heavy lifting. But lack of support from the government means the central bank will have to put up rates another 100 bps this year, analysts reckon.

Has Congress lost the plot on inflation?

“Government Plan To Tackle Prices Is Just Hot Air” screamed the front page of Friday’s Mail Today, as India’s political media lined up to belittle what was billed as a list of anti-inflationary remedies but was robustly rejected as “already failed measures and oft-repeated homilies.”

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party Chief Sonia Gandhi and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee stand to attention as the national anthem is played during an oath-taking ceremony inside the presidential palace in New Delhi May 28, 2009. REUTERS/B Mathur

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meetings this week with senior cabinet ministers to tackle year-high food inflation dragged on long into the night, keeping editors on tenterhooks and assuring Congress of front page headlines.

This morning, those headlines would have made for painful reading. After rumours of export curbs and future markets tweaks, what emerged to be a paltry list of recommendations was seen by many as nothing but ineffective band-aids for a broken economy requiring surgery.

Will rotting foodgrain bring about a retail revolution?

Pictures of grain rotting in the rain in Punjab have shocked a country reeling under high food price inflation and where hundreds of thousands go to bed every night on an empty stomach.

A labourer carries a plastic sheet to cover wheat sacks at a wholesale grain market in Chandigarh May 18, 2010. REUTERS/Ajay Verma/FilesThe estimates vary from 1.2 million metric tonnes of rice and wheat wasting in Punjab alone, and as much as 18 million metric tonnes of food grain lying in the open across the country because of inadequate storage facilities, translating into losses of about 270 billion rupees ($6 billion).

But this is not a new problem. India has prided itself on increasing agricultural productivity, but it has not invested adequately in storage and warehousing facilities, condemning some 40 percent of produce that the country can ill-afford to waste to the trash can.

Budget 2010: Time for annual guessing game

It’s a laudable effort that often gets more brickbats than bouquets. This year, when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee presents the Union budget in parliament on February 26, he will walking a tightrope between managing ballooning fiscal deficit and supporting economic recovery in Asia’s third-biggest economy.

Budget 2010: Time for the annual guessing gameExpectations from the finance minister, as always, are high — people and corporates want more in their pockets. There has been no let-up in the rise of food prices and most middle-class families still have to wait for annual sales to get branded products home.

In other words, the nation would like to see changes in tax rates, consumables getting cheaper and credit continuing to be available easily.

Why should the government control inflation?

A labourer pulls a plastic sheet to cover sacks of paddy from rain at a grain market in Chandigarh January 13, 2010. REUTERS/Ajay VermaThe ‘reform agenda’ understood as ‘market-oriented reform’ or giving more space to market mechanism in food and fuel economy seems to have been held up.

The government can not be seen to be doing away with subsidies just as prices are up. Its hand is stayed for now.

But is that enough for say the gross national happiness?

Food and fuel inflation has been in the news for a while.

The government has no short-term control over supply side issues causing price rise like a bad monsoon leading to a low harvest or floods, but it can control the rising demand by reining in liquidity.

Does inflation make sense to the common man?

Who is the Minister for Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation?

When is the National Statistics Day celebrated?

An average person may find it difficult to answer these questions.

Just as it is difficult to understand why the people are hurting even if the government inflation figures are near zero if not negative as they were a few weeks ago.

To talk of inflation near zero after visiting the vegetable vendor seems surreal.

Experts explain this as due to food items having less weight or influence in the weekly inflation measure which assesses wholesale prices.

Has India got it right on fuel prices?

So it’s official. India has finally raised fuel prices, by more than most people expected. A hike in diesel prices in particular is sure to feed through into overall inflation. At the same the government removed the import duty on crude oil.

A petrol station attendant counts currency notes in Jammu.We’d be keen on your opinion. Has the government got it right?

Despite the price rises, oil companies are still going to be losing huge amounts of money and gas-guzzling cars are still going to be heavily subsidized by ordinary taxpayers. The oil ministry had even argued for steeper price hikes.

Are subsidies really the right way to go in the modern world? Is the government sacrificing good economics on the altar of political populism?

Too early to write off India’s Congress-led coalition

Is the sun setting on the Congress-led UPA government? India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is certainly riding high after victory in the southern state of Karnataka at the weekend , giving it a first chance to run a government in the south.Party workers of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) light smoke flares to celebrate the party’s victory in the state elections in Karnataka, outside the party’s headquarters in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad May 25, 2008. REUTERS/Amit Dave (INDIA)And it’s the latest in a long losing streak for Congress in state elections. The question is whether the ruling party can turn things around.

The economy certainly isn’t helping. Rising inflation seems to have already wiped out whatever electoral benefits the farmers’ debt waiver might have brought. A slowdown in growth, already apparent in industrial production statistics, won’t help either.

So the first problem for the government is to bring down inflation in time for next year’s national polls.

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