Of course, the Reserve Bank of India didn’t mean to issue a warning to all global financial markets. The minutes of the central bank’s December 3-5 meeting, released today, focus on the need to hold its benchmark interest rate at 5.15% after delivering 135 basis points of rate cuts so far this year including a 40 basis point cut in October while members of the Monetary Policy Committee studied the inflation picture.
What’s important to me about the decision is that the bank decided to stand pat even through the Indian economy has slowed to annual growth of 4.5%. That’s a six-year low for economic growth.
For India’s monetary officials, who have been so aggressive on cutting interest rates to rev up growth in the Indian economy, to hold steady given that data is an extraordinary admission, I think, that they are more worried about rising inflation than comments saying that the spike in inflation is a result of “temporary supply shocks” that have pushed up prices in the food markets.
Why is this important if you invest pretty much anywhere in the world (but don’t have a cent invested in India)? Because the thing that could most easily derail global financial markets in 2020 is unexpectedly high inflation that forces central banks to put their low interest rate policies on hold and raises even the fear, in financial markets, that higher inflation might lead central banks to raise interest rates earlier than expected to fight any surge in prices.
The Reserve Bank of India has raised its inflation forecast for the second-half of the fiscal year that ends in March 2020 to 4.7% to 5.1% from the earlier projection of 3.5% to 3.7%. That’s big enough to count as a spike, I think.
The culprit seems to be a potential increase in the prices of milk, sugar, cereals, and pulses, the beans, lentils, and peas that are a core part of the Indian diet.
Now central banks normally downplay the importance of increases in the prices of food and energy, arguing that food along with energy prices are so volatile from month to money that they should not be included in more meaningful core measures of inflation trends.
This has always struck me as a somewhat odd argument since, volatile prices or not, people have to buy food and energy. Nonetheless the construction of a core inflation measure that excludes these items has been central to central bank policy for decades.
That the Reserve Bank of India thinks that inflation in these “excluded” categories is significant enough to put off an interest rate cut when economic growth is slowing isn’t central bank policy as usual. And deserves a bit of attention from investors in other markets too.
I’ve got one more post today on acquisitions by Nvidia (NVDA) and Danaher (DHR) to post and then I’m going to share some thoughts on the inflation picture here in the United States.