Sunday, 5 January 2014

Inflation needs a political solution

So, India’s central banker Raghuram Rajan did not hike rates on 18 December, even though both wholesale and retail inflation persisted at elevated levels. The man who was expected to act like a hawk, is being panned for behaving like a dove, taking a benign attitude to inflation.
Rajan made it clear that he is not comfortable with such labels and that, far from being soft on inflation, he was keeping a close eye on it. If inflation did not ease, he said, he would act appropriately. Maybe he had a problem with the choice of birds, and would have preferred to be compared to the wise owl instead.
Will inflation – particularly food inflation – ease over the next month? Given that general elections are due in a few months, the government and the Congress Party will certainly hope that it will. The results of the recent assembly elections made it very clear that the public will be unforgiving about rising prices. However, opposition parties would do well not to gloat about the government’s plight. What India is seeing today is not a cyclical or seasonal high inflation that will correct itself. High inflation, especially food inflation, has got entrenched and is not likely to go away soon. It is certainly going to pose a huge challenge to whichever government comes to power in May 2014. And there is no quick solution for it.
The persistent high inflation that we are seeing now is an economic problem created by politics. The solution, too, is rooted in politics. The UPA cannot escape the blame for the current high inflation. The unchecked populism during its ten years is mainly to blame. Finance minister P. Chidambaram admits that higher farm gate prices and higher rural wages (thanks to the NREGA effect) had played a role in rising inflation. But he justified both decisions as being right. “The argument that inflation must be contained by suppressing farm gate prices or rural wages is a specious argument that ignores the needs of the poor and deserves to be rejected,” he said at the Delhi Economics Conclave in mid-December.
It is by now well established that the rising food inflation is the result of increasing demand, thanks to growing prosperity, far outstripping supply. This statement, however, needs to taken with a bit of caution. While expenditure on fruits and vegetables (which has seen the highest levels of inflation) grew by 42 percent between 2004-05 and 2011-12, data from the National Horticulture Board shows that production increased 53 percent. Dr Ramesh Chand, director of the National Centre for Agriculture Economics and Policy Research (NCAP), explains this discrepancy, pointing out that given the huge increase in demand even a marginal fall in production in some months has a huge multiplier effect on prices. This becomes more marked in vegetables that lend themselves to hoarding – potatoes, onions and tomatoes, which have almost become necessities now. So clearly, there is a supply bottleneck issue that needs to be addressed. For this, traders and the entrenched cartels in farm goods are to blame.
How is this to be tackled? The solution is an economic one – liberalising and bringing in more competition into agricultural trade. But politics is not letting it happen.
The issue of monopolies and cartels in agricultural trade has to do with the state-level Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act which set up regulated zonal wholesale markets to which farmers in a particular area are bound to sell their produce. This not only encourages monopolies, but also stands in the way of the integration of farm production with the national market. According to an ICRIER report on the non-alcoholic beverage sector, even in cases where food processing firms buy produce directly from the farmers, they have to pay the APMC cess.
There is near-unanimity that the APMCs need to go or at least be modified to allow more competition and that a barrier-free national market is the best way to tackle food inflation. Unfortunately, this is something that is solely in the realm of state governments. A model APMC Act, which allowed for more competition, was drawn up by the Centre during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. During the NDA and the UPA reign, there have been attempts to prod states to adopt this model legislation. A committee of state ministers in charge of agricultural marketing has unanimously endorsed the need to adopt the model Act. And yet, only 17 states have done so. So strong is the political hold of the vested interests that control these markets.
When food inflation started heading northward in 2002-03, the NDA government cooled prices by releasing part of food grains stocks through the public distribution system and selling grains at cheaper rates to millers. The government is sitting on huge food grain stocks, but it is wary of offloading this because of the requirements of the Food Security Act. Can the damage be contained? There is a provision in the legislation to move to a system of cash transfers, which will obviate the necessity of huge public stockholdings. This is again a political call that either the present or future governments will have to take. Do parties have the gall to take this route? Remember that this unwise piece of legislation was green-lighted by all parties.
Former finance minister Yashwant Sinha recently recalled an anecdote from his tenure about the finance minister of a northern state losing his temper when the Union finance secretary suggested that states abolish a tax on trade in food grains in order to keep food prices down. For the minister, filling up his state’s coffers were more important than the larger macro-economic implications of rising food prices.
When politicians across the country and across parties refuse to see economic logic, can there be an easy solution to the inflation problem? There is no point drawing comfort from the fact that high inflation is being driven by food prices and that core inflation is largely at acceptable levels. As C. Rangarajan, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, has warned, sustained food inflation gets generalised and spreads to other sectors. Given the current levels of distortions in the marketing of food grains, cereals and fruits and vegetables, high food inflation is unlikely to be a temporary phenomenon. Rajan, at his press conference on Wednesday, clearly said that the RBI could not indefinitely wait for the supply side to catch up with demand pressures on the food front and that if necessary, he would take steps to bring demand closer to supply. That is obviously the only solution that will be left.
But just because inflation targeting is one of RBI’s mandates, is it justified to put on it the entire onus of solving a problem that is not of its creation in the first place? In doing that, isn’t the political class that is responsible for the situation being let off the hook? Won’t the use of monetary policy to address a supply-side problem lead to other problems? These are questions all political parties need to mull over. It is time inflation is seen as a political problem requiring political solutions. The structural problems cannot be addressed overnight. The benefits also will take time to materialise. If any new government does not take action early enough, five years down the line (or even earlier during elections to state assemblies) it will find itself in the same situation as the UPA.
In October 2012, when Rajan’s predecessor D. Subbarao hiked rates to tackle inflation amid fears that it would hurt growth, a miffed Chidambaram had said he would walk alone if necessary to face the challenge of growth. Chidambaram or whoever the finance minister will have to walk alone to address the challenge of inflation. At any rate, they can’t expect the RBI governor to walk alone on this issue. They – and the entire political class – will have to support him.

No comments: