A Fiscal Lesson for Monetary Policy

Is it wise to entrust monetary policy to the central government, when it has consistently failed to achieve its fiscal and revenue deficit targets?

The Finance Ministry has put up the revised draft of the Indian Financial Code (IFC) on its website and has invited comments from the general public. Its many drastic proposals have invited much outrage from economists with the main target being the structure of the monetary policy committee. Earlier this year, the Reserve Bank of India and the Finance Mininistry came to an agreement to form a monetary policy committee (MPC) and also agreed on adopting inflation targeting. The draft IFC goes on to expound the structure and functions of the MPC:

Part XI “Reserve Bank”, Chapter 64 – Objectives and Functions of the Reserve Bank; Clause 256:

  1. The Reserve Bank must constitute a Monetary Policy Committee to determine by majority vote the Policy Rate required to achieve the inflation target.
  2. The Monetary Policy Committee will comprise –
    • (a) the Reserve Bank Chairperson as its chairperson;
    • (b) one executive member of the Reserve Bank Board nominated by the Reserve Bank Board;
    • (c) one employee of the Reserve Bank nominated by the Reserve Bank Chairperson; and
    • (d) four persons appointed by the Central Government.

Thus, the MPC will consist of seven people, the majority of which (four) will be from the central government. Since it is stipulated that the interest rate will be set by the MPC on the basis of a majority vote, the government will get a greater say in the determining of monetary policy than the RBI. Further, the chairperson of the MPC (the RBI chairperson) does not get a veto vote. This is essentially the heart of the heated debate on the transfer of control of monetary policy from the RBI to the central government.

Why is this a bad thing?   

The issue boils down to whether the government can be trusted to keep the long term interests of the economy in mind while making monetary policy decisions. The trends in fiscal policy can point towards the answer. As Anantha Nageshwaran points out, “the Indian economy is inflation prone and fiscal populism, is its biggest contributor. From loan waivers to corporate give-aways, fiscal policy primes the pump needlessly on many occasions for non-economic considerations.”

It is difficult to trust a central government (irrespective of which party in power) which has failed to adhere to its own rules regarding fiscal policy. The government passed the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBMA) in 2003 with the intention of reining in the ballooning fiscal and revenue deficits. It planned to reduce fiscal deficit to 3% of GDP and eliminate revenue deficits by 2008, though this deadline was later extended to 2009 without any opposition. However, by 2009 the revenue and fiscal deficits were as high as 4.7 and 6.2 per cent of GDP respectively.  From 2009 to 2012, the FRBMA targets were never met as can be seen in Figure 1.

The events after 2012 are even more disturbing. The budget speech of 2012-13 contained amendments to the FRBMA which diluted targets and extended deadlines. The amendments extended the deadline to reduce the fiscal deficit to 3% to 2017 and increased the targeted revenue deficit to 2% instead of 0% (to be achieved by 2015). May, 2013 witnessed further dilutions and extensions of the targets.

Figure 1: The central government has consistently failed to meet its targets for containing fiscal and revenue deficits.

Figure 1: The central government has consistently failed to meet its targets for containing fiscal and revenue deficits.

There are multiple reasons for the central government’s failure to adhere to its own targets. However, the essential problem lies with the inherent short term growth bias of the central government as these posts have elaborated. Political considerations like re-election make the central government more than willing to consistently spend more than it earns despite the risks of higher future inflation and increased interest rates.

This begs the question as to how the central government can be entrusted with conducting monetary policy when such a task requires a long term perspective. “There is thus plenty of reason in the Indian context for the central bank to remain in a perpetual vigilant and adversarial mode. It provides the vital check and balance”, as Anantha Nageswaran elaborates. Thus, if the IFC is insistent on setting up an MPC, it should revisit the composition of members and should tilt the balance away from the political central government and towards the RBI.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution. He tweets @anupammanur

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