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Market Watch: The interest rate situation

The RBI did urge banks to consider changing rates without any direct cue from itself and the Finance minister has been requesting bank chiefs to lower rates, writes Udayan Mukherjee.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2008 21:08 IST

Interest rates have started coming down. Large public sector banks like SBI and Canara bank have slashed key lending rates twice in the last one month and home and consumer loan rates have been cut across the board. And all this without the RBI signalling any rate easing in it's last monetary policy. While the RBI did urge banks to consider changing rates without any direct cue from itself and the Finance minister has been requesting bank chiefs to lower rates, there could be a couple of other important reasons why banks have started cutting rates proactively.

One, growth is slowing down. In early 2007, the furious pace of credit growth was a problem. Now that the central bank has effectively cooled this tearaway credit growth with higher interest rates, we have come to the other end of the spectrum -- because growth could be lower than desired. The economy is slowing, many sectors are witnessing lower offtake and banks do not want to be in a situation where their bread and butter is affected by their inability to lower interest rates pending fiat from the RBI. Therefore, they are simply doing what is best for their own business, lowering the price of money. Now, why have they not waited for an explicit cue from the central bank this time? Perhaps because of inflation. Even a casual glance at commodity prices will tell you the story. Crude is $100 a barrel, gold is at a high of $950 an ounce and silver at a 27-year- high, base metals have had an incredible run of late and even soft agricultural commodities are stubbornly high.

The US Fed, staring at a recession, does not have the luxury of looking at inflation but the RBI does. Particularly so, with this being a pre- election year and the Finance Ministry is surely not missing any opportunity to remind it of the fact. It is entirely possible then that another couple of monetary policy meetings may pass without the RBI pressing the rate trigger. Banks don't want to keep waiting only to realise halfway down the year that slower growth has started denting credit offtake in a serious manner. That is the way it should be: the RBI does what it thinks is good for the nation, balancing inflation and growth, while banks do what is good for their business of lending.

Generally, interest rate cuts are hailed by equity markets. Yet, interestingly, serial interest rate cuts by the US fed have not sparked off any meaningful rally in global equities and clear signs of rate easing in the domestic market have failed to produce any positive impact either. Rate sensitives are lying particularly quiet : banks have come off on margin worries, real estate stocks have settled 30-50% lower than recent highs and there's no great buying in autos either. Maybe it's the global turmoil clouding sentiment, the reason why the market is ignoring the interest rate cues or maybe it's worried that the growth slowdown is worse than what is built into stock prices today. Once the global clouds clear a bit, hopefully the stock market will spot this ray of sunshine.

Executive Editor, CNBC-TV18