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Covid surge adding to uncertainty, RBI keeps key rate unchanged

The Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) Wednesday left policy rates unchanged at record low levels as it was still unsure about the sustainability of economic recovery due to the second wave of Covid-19 infections.

The central bank, however, announced a bond-buying calendar which will ensure that borrowers reap the benefits of a low interest rate regime.

The repo rate, the main policy rate (it is the rate at which the RBI lends money to commercial banks), has been retained at 4 per cent because the MPC wants to ensure that “the prospects of sustained recovery are well secured”.

“The renewed jump in Covid-19 infections in certain parts of the country and the associated localised lockdowns could dampen the demand for contact-intensive services, restrain growth impulses and prolong the return to normalcy. In such an environment, continued policy support remains necessary,” the MPC stated.

Explained

Boosting confidence

The new bond purchase calendar should provide confidence to participants that huge supply of government borrowings will not drive up yields too much. It also supports the easy monetary policy stance at a time when the Covid surge is adding to uncertainty about growth and inflation.

India recently became the second country after the US to report daily fresh infections of over 100,000.

In Wednesday’s statement, the MPC retained its assessment of FY22 GDP growth of 10.5 per cent. It also raised its projection for consumer price inflation a bit to 5.2 per cent for the first half of the current fiscal year.

The RBI announced a government securities acquisition programme (GSAP), essentially a calendar of its bond buying programme, starting with Rs 1 lakh crore of securities purchases in the first quarter of the current fiscal year.

This new GSAP programme will run along with the RBI’s regular open market operations and other liquidity management facilities, RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das reiterated in a post-policy announcement interaction. Earlier, the central bank had committed that it would purchase not less than Rs 3 lakh crore of bond purchases in FY22.

Meanwhile, the rupee lost 1.5 per cent Wednesday, its biggest single-day fall in 20 months, as the RBI laid out plans for the government bond buying programme.

Government bond yields have been rising sharply since the Centre announced a big borrowing programme for the current fiscal. That, along with the rise in sovereign bond yields in the rest of the world, and inflation fears, meant that the yield on the 10-year benchmark government bond, an average 5.93 per cent between April 2020 and January 2021, had risen to a high of 6.25 per cent in March.

Bond yields and prices move in opposite directions — when there is demand for bonds such as due to extra buying from RBI, bond prices go up while yields come down.

Government security yields represent the risk-free rate in the economy and act as a base for all other interest rates. Thus, between February and March-end, yields on AAA corporate bonds (the highest rated) increased by as much as 31 basis points, despite the RBI not increasing rates or withdrawing liquidity.

Corporate bond issuance in February at Rs 45,685 crore moderated from its peak of Rs 88,130 crore recorded in December 2020. In effect, the rising bond yields weakened the central bank’s easy monetary stance and it had to do something about it.

The RBI’s bond purchase calendar will give confidence to bond market participants that huge supply of government borrowings will not drive up yields too much. It also supports the easy monetary policy stance at a time when the second wave adds to uncertainty about economic growth and inflation.

“The evolving CPI inflation trajectory is likely to be subjected to both upside and downside pressures,” said the MPC. It said that the bumper foodgrain production and imports should keep a lid on food prices but warned about high international commodity prices, increased logistics costs and heightened inflation expectations of households as risk factors.

The central bank also extended measures to improve credit flow to the economy, some of which were introduced last year to fight the pandemic. It extended its long-term repo operations (lending money to banks), extended refinance facilities for NABARD and SIDBI to help MSMEs, and made it easier for banks to continue lending to sectors such as agriculture and MSMEs via NBFCs.


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