Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Raghuram Rajan is Not Paul Volcker

Raghuram Rajan will take over leadership of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on September 4. The BBC lists some of the challenges facing the Indian economy, including a large current account deficit, weak rupee, the slowest growth in a decade (around 5%), and inequality, adding, "Many believe that the single biggest failure of the government's economic policies in recent years has been the inability to control inflation in general and food prices in particular."

It's clear that Rajan will have his work cut out for him, but what kind of work will that be? 

"The monetary situation is such that he may be forced to act as India’s Paul Volcker, hiking up rates and perhaps even orchestrating a recession to get the currency and inflation under control," writes Dylan Matthews. Matthews notes that "By law, India’s central bank doesn’t have much political independence, as Rajan serves at the pleasure of the government and can be sacked at any time. That could deter him from making tough moves against inflation that could have unpopular implications for growth. But Subramanian thinks he’ll have a great deal of flexibility in practice, even if the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party comes to power again."

There is a tendency to want to frame the challenges of the Indian economy in terms of a power struggle between monetary and fiscal authorities-- an "unseemly battle of wits over interest rates," according to Rajrishi Singhal at Bloomberg.  Singhal describes how the Finance Ministry has piled pressure on Rajan's predecessor, RBI Governor Duvvuri Subbarao, to keep rates low. The idea is that, if only the new Governor can stand up to "bullying" and raise rates, then inflation and the rupee can be stabilized. But India in 2013 is not the U.S. in 1979, and Raghuram Rajan need not imitate Paul Volcker.

A central banker's role in India is much different than a central banker's role in the United States or Europe. Monetary policy, remember, is ultimately based on frictions. Prices and inflation are nominal variables. In a frictionless economy, there is no role for monetary policy. It is because of certain frictions that monetary policy can have short-run effects, and these frictions provide the justification for using monetary policy to stabilize economic fluctuations over the business cycle. The optimal monetary policy depends on the nature and magnitude of these frictions. Sticky prices and sticky information are the two categories of frictions most used in the analysis of monetary policy. Both have similar implications for how monetary policy should generally work.

The theory behind the Taylor rule is based on the sticky price friction. The rule recommends a relatively high interest rate or “tight” policy when inflation or employment is relatively high, and a relatively low interest rate in the opposite scenario. According to the Taylor rule, India's policy rates are currently too low. As Ashok Rao writes (in a very excellent post), "A healthy Taylor rule requires an accurate estimate of the output gap which is founded on long-run trend growth. “Trend” growth is a useless concept in countries like India and China, whose growth rates have both a high mean and variance."

But there may be a more fundamental reason why the Taylor rule is not suitable for India. The Taylor rule is based on the sticky price friction, which may not be the dominant friction. Amartya Lahiri suggests that the dominant friction is asset market segmentation (emphasis added).
A well-known feature of the Indian economy is that access to asset markets and instruments is extremely limited. About 140 million households in India do not have access to any formal banking at all. Consequently, less than half of all individuals have access to any formal financial services...It is thus abundantly clear that there is endemic and widespread segmentation in asset markets in India with only a small subset of India having access to formal asset markets. But curiously, discussions about monetary policy in India are completely divorced from this asset market segmentation."
How does asset market segmentation impact the monetary policy calculus? In this case the central bank needs to use monetary policy to provide insurance to those that are absent from these markets. This policy imperative can naturally imply very different monetary policy responses relative to when prices are sticky.
Rajesh Singh, Amartya Lahiri, and Carlos Vegh study optimal monetary policy in environments with segmented asset markets. As Lahiri summarizes,
Intuitively, the role of policy under this friction is to protect households that are excluded from asset markets from excessive fluctuations in their consumption levels. When output is high, consumption of these households tends to rise due to (a) higher income; and (b) higher real money balances as the exchange rate tends to appreciate. By expanding money supply, the central bank can inflate away some of the increase in real balances and thereby moderate the rise in consumption. This procyclicality of the optimal monetary policy is clearly at odds with the Taylor rule prescription that monetary policy should be countercyclical.
The authors also find that asset market segmentation has surprising effects on optimal exchange rate regimes (effectively the opposite of the Mudellian model). They come down in favor of targeting monetary aggregates instead of targeting the exchange rate. The model of Singh et al. is admittedly very stylized and I have found no existing tests of its empirical implications. So I am certainly not actually recommending that Rajan rush to lower interest rates. Nor am I suggesting that Rao's proposal of a rule-based exchange rate policy should be off the table.

Rather, I just intend to highlight the topsy-turvy theoretical results that can arise when we alter the foundations of our models; in particular, when we acknowledge lack of financial inclusion as a significant friction. I also believe that an important role for Rajan, perhaps more important than any decision about interest rates, will be in reforming the financial system and promoting financial inclusion. I am very optimistic on this front. The Financial Times reports that "economists who know Mr Rajan well say helping hundreds of millions of Indians get access to efficient financial services is close to his heart." In 2008, he wrote "A Hundred Small Steps," a report on financial sector reforms. I am most impressed by his inclusion in Chapter 3, "Broadening Access to Finance," of this chart, which shows the interest rates actually paid by people in each income quartile.

It appears that he is quite sensitive to the severity of asset market segmentation in India and to the fact that interest rate movements are not evenly transmitted across all segments of the population.


  1. I know you think financial inclusion is more important than interest rates here, but let me ask you something about the interest rates...

    Do you think a better analogy for India in 2013 (at least as far as interest rates are concerned) than America in 1979, would be Europe in 2011? That analogy isn't perfect, but I see poorer Indians as being like Greece and Spain, and richer Indians as being like germany, in that poorer Indians are facing relatively high interest rates, low nominal incomes, and "tight money," whereas richer segments of society are facing relatively low interest rates, an inflation rate that is too high and eats away at their savings, an exchange rate that is too weak and thereby reduces their global purchasing power, and just aren't too keen on "loose money" right now in general.

    Is there anything at all to that analogy? (I am not too confident in it, it's just something that came to mind, but it does seem plausible...?)

  2. Jacob, yes, that's an interesting point, and it does seem like there is something to your analogy. Certainly the idea that one monetary policy results in heterogeneous interest rates across groups is occurring in both cases.

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