Inflation still key threat: RBI
Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Duvvuri Subbarao said on Tuesday that inflation remains too high and needs to fall further or risk more damage to the economy, dismissing criticism of the bank's hawkish policy stance.
Since cutting its main interest rate in April by a bigger-than-expected 50 basis points to 8 percent, the RBI has stayed on hold, drawing complaints that high rates are burdening consumers and slowing growth.
Cutting interest rates, however, may only support growth in the short-term, while high and persistent inflation will harm the economy longer term, Subbarao said.
He noted that much of the criticism of the bank's policy was coming from a "very articulate" growth lobby in India that includes companies, and said the central bank must also consider other constituents, including the poor.
"People are hurt by inflation, largely the poor people. They don't have the mechanism to get their voice heard," Subbarao said. He was speaking at an event at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Subbarao added that he believes the RBI has been successful in easing price pressures by reducing the inflation rate to 7 percent from 11 percent. But he noted that various factors, including high commodity prices, the fiscal deficit and the monsoon, risk pushing it higher.
"I believe that the battle against inflation has not ended yet," Subbarao said, noting that the rate needs to fall below 5 percent.
At the same time, he conceded that "some sacrifice to growth is an inevitable price" to pay in order to reduce price pressures.
A number of economists have cut their gross domestic product growth forecasts for the current fiscal year in India, Asia's third-largest economy, to around 5.5 percent. Growth of 5.3 percent in the March quarter was India's slowest in nine years.
At its last review, the central bank raised its headline inflation projection for the year ending in March 2013 to 7 percent from 6.5 percent, while lowering its GDP growth forecast to 6.5 percent from 7.3 percent.
Subbarao said the RBI has less room to drive monetary policy than in the financial crisis of 2008-2009, when people were worried about deflation.
He added that the bank would only intervene against the currency if it sees clear benefit to its monetary policy and the bank's credibility, noting that "a failed defense of an exchange rate" can be more damaging than no action at all.
Subbarao added that the bank is also taking steps to protect against possible ratings downgrades, but did not give details.
Credit rating agencies Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings both rank the country the lowest investment grade, with a negative outlook, which means India risks falling into junk territory.
A junk rating would make its debt less attractive to investors.