After seeing the currency stabilising, Rajan took the attack to inflation. In his first monetary policy review, he raised the policy rate, which shocked the financial markets. “Some of the actions I take will not be popular. The governorship of the central bank is not meant to win votes or Facebook likes,” was his famous comment on the first day.
After changing the main inflation gauge from wholesale price index to retail inflation as the latter hurt the common man more, he virtually announced a war on inflation. And, from a double-digit level two years earlier, retail inflation is now at a new low, with the July number at 3.78 per cent.
Is that battle over? One of the main factors contributing to this sharp fall is a global one, dwindling crude oil prices. A country which imports a third of its crude requirements will benefit from a drastic fall. The question doing the rounds is what will happen, if energy prices change the trajectory.
In the latest monetary policy review, the governor said: “Most worrisome is the sustained hardening of inflation, excluding food and fuel.” He also noted some food prices, particularly of protein-rich items pulses and oilseeds, had risen sharply in recent months. In addition, supply-side bottlenecks remain, a crucial element to curb rising prices.
After maintaining a hawkish stance through 2014, January 2015 saw the first rate cut by the central bank, followed by two more, resulting in a cumulative reduction of 75 basis points (bps). Yet, monetary transmission remains a problem, as banks are reluctant to cut lending rates. While HDFC Bank reduced its base rate (the benchmark to which all loan rates are linked) by 65 bps, including a 35 bps cut earlier this week, others have reduced their base rate by just 25-30 bps. RBI has now asked banks to consider the marginal cost for base rate calculation but it is to be seen if that prompts banks to cut more.
The Urjit Patel Committee was set up to review the monetary policy structure. After its report, a rule-based policy is in place, rather than a discretion-based one. RBI has entered into a historic agreement with the government, with inflation targeting as a stated objective. A formal monetary policy committee is to come but this needs lawmakers’ approval.
GOVERNANCE IN BANKS
A committee under P J Nayak was set up to review governance issues in banks. The government has split the post of chairman and managing director in public sector banks and started hiring people from private banks, too. However, the key Nayak recommendation for the government to give autonomy to PSBs and cut its own equity stake below 51 per cent has not happened.
And, the government and RBI continue to be a part of the chief executive’s selection process in PSBs; it is not left, as with private banks, to their boards of directors. Also, the government and RBI continue to be on the boards of PSBs.
Many steps were taken by RBI to tackle the issue of rising non-performing assets (NPAs). Regulatory forbearance for restructuring of loans were ended, norms for early recognition and resolution of stressed assets were announced, the so-called 5/25 scheme was unveiled in which a loan can be given by a lender and refinanced by other lenders every five years for four times.
However, asset quality pressure has not eased. And, some of these norms haven’t been implemented in the true spirit.
Rajan has also awarded new banking licences, a process started by his predecessor. RBI has now also given licences to entities for starting operations as payments banks and will issue licences for small finance
banks by the end of this month. This was the first time that the central bank issued differentiated banking licences.
The next step is to move towards ‘on-tap’ licensing — meaning, entities can apply any time. How fast RBI can move to such a system is to be seen.
Rajan’s tenure also saw a rather controversial decision that a bank customer will have to pay for withdrawing cash from automated teller machines, beyond a certain number of transactions. While this was a long-standing demand from banks, customers are not happy for being charged to withdraw their own cash.
RBI decided to revamp priority sector norms. Banks will have separate targets for small and marginal farmers and for micro industries. Foreign banks with more than 20 branches will have targets in line with those for India-based counterparts.
The definition of priority sector lending was also widened to include medium enterprises, social infrastructure and renewable energy.
Rajan initiated internal restructuring by organising RBI central office departments into five clusters — regulation and banking services, supervision and risk management, monetary stability, financial markets and infrastructure, and operations & human resources.
Another idea, to induct a chief operations officer with the rank of a deputy governor, was not approved by the government.