December 5, 2019 / 6:25 AM / a month ago

RBI pauses with dramatic effect, markets wobble

MUMBAI (Reuters) - The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) kept its key lending rate on hold in a shock decision that spooked markets on Thursday, even as it slashed its growth forecast for the economy to its lowest level in over a decade.

FILE PHOTO: A worker walks past the logo of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) inside its office in New Delhi, July 8, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

The RBI’s monetary policy committee (MPC) had been widely expected to deliver its sixth interest rate cut of the year. Instead, the six-member panel unanimously voted to hold the key repo rate at 5.15% while the reverse repo rate was also held at 4.90%.

“I cannot remember the last time there has been such a resounding surprise as far as the RBI decision is concerned. It defies the expectation of the market and also the body language of the central bank over the last six months,” said Taimur Baig, chief economist at DBS Group Research.

Bond yields spiked and equities fell after the decision.

Explaining its decision, the MPC said it was concerned about inflation in the near term, while acknowledging there is room to cut rates further.

“The MPC recognises that there is monetary policy space for future action,” the panel said in a statement. “However, given the evolving growth-inflation dynamics, the MPC felt it appropriate to take a pause at this juncture.”

The RBI lowered its GDP growth forecast for the year ending March 2020 to 5% from 6.1%, which if proved right would be the lowest full-year growth rate for the economy since the global financial crisis.

The central bank also raised its headline inflation projection for the second half of the ongoing financial year to between 5.1%-4.9%, from an earlier forecast of 3.5%-3.7%.

India’s economic growth fell to 4.5% in the September period down from 7% a year ago, to post its weakest levels in more than six years, and the economy is growing well below the pace needed to generate enough jobs for the millions of Indians entering the labour market each month.

Bond markets reacted negatively with the benchmark 10-year bond yield spiking sharply to 6.61%, versus the pre-policy and previous closing level of 6.47%. The partially convertible rupee however closed stronger at 71.2850 per dollar after some initial losses.

Equity markets fell post the decision and were choppy through the rest of the session. The broader Nifty share index .NSEI closed down 0.2%.

“While the incoming macro data was already making market dynamics unpredictable, now with surprises on monetary policy, markets will likely stay edgy in the near term,” said Rajni Thakur, an economist at RBL Bank.

ACCOMMODATIVE STANCE

The RBI reiterated that it would maintain an accommodative stance “as long as it is necessary to revive economic growth, while ensuring that inflation remains within the target”.

Gross domestic product numbers released on Friday had shown government spending helping to prop up weak demand, while private investment growth had virtually collapsed, with a crisis in the shadow banking sector causing illiquidity in the economy.

Annual retail inflation rose to 4.62% last month, climbing above the mid-point of the RBI’s target range of 2%-6% for the first time in 15 months.

Many economists and analysts have lately begun to argue that rate cuts alone will do little to revive growth and calls for more direct fiscal stimulus from the government have grown louder in recent weeks.

RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das told a news conference after the policy decision that both the central bank and government were committed to the revival of growth, but it was critical that monetary and fiscal policy work in tandem.

FILE PHOTO: The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Shaktikanta Das arrives to attend a news conference after a monetary policy review in Mumbai, December 5, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

“For credit flow we’ve been taking various measures from the RBI end and if more measures are needed we will take them, but demand side measures will be part of the government’s action plan,” said Das. “What measures the government will take on the demand side, I can’t spell out. It’s the prerogative of the government to decide that.”

A Reuters poll of 70 economists had predicted the RBI would cut its repo rate by 25 bps and then by another 15 bps in the second quarter of 2020, where it will stay at least until 2021.

“RBI has finally thrown the ball back into the government’s court to revive the economic engine ... But, this is a negative for the markets as a rate cut was required to boost risk-taking appetite in the economy,” said Jimeet Modi, chief executive of SAMCO Securities in Mumbai.

Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Jon Boyle and Giles Elgood

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