Are the inflationary fires subsiding?

On 25 October, Dr. Subbarao announced a 25 basis point hike in the policy rate. Alongside this, he made statements that were widely interpreted as being dovish:

Keeping in view the domestic demand-supply balance, the global trends in commodity prices and the likely demand scenario, the baseline projection for WPI inflation for March 2012 is kept unchanged at 7 per cent. Elevated inflationary pressures are expected to ease from December 2011, though uncertainties about sudden adverse developments remain.

Inflation is broad-based and above the comfort level of the Reserve Bank. Further, these levels are expected to persist for two more months. … However, reassuringly, momentum indicators, particularly the de-seasonalised quarter-on-quarter headline and core inflation measures indicate moderation, consistent with the projection that inflation will begin to decline beginning December 2011.

The projected inflation trajectory indicates that the inflation rate will begin falling in December 2011 (January 2012 release) and then continue down a steady path to 7 per cent by March 2012. It is expected to moderate further in the first half of 2012-13. This reflects a combination of commodity price movements and the cumulative impact of monetary tightening. Further, moderating inflation rates are likely to impact expectations favourably. These expected outcomes provide some room for monetary policy to address growth risks in the short run. With this in mind, notwithstanding current rates of inflation persisting till November (December release), the likelihood of a rate action in the December mid-quarter review is relatively low. Beyond that, if the inflation trajectory conforms to projections, further rate hikes may not be warranted.

WPI inflation is not interesting in thinking about monetary policy. The WPI basket is not consumed by any household. The right measure of inflation that all of us should focus on is the CPI.

We just released an updated batch of seasonally adjusted data, and the news for inflation, for September 2011, is bad. CPI-IW grew at an annualised (seasonally adjusted) rate of 20.15% in September 2011. As a consequence, the 3-month moving average inflation went up from 8% in August to 11.77% in September.  If we compute the policy rate as the halfway mark (8%) and subtract out this latest value of the 3-month moving average inflation rate (11.77%), the policy rate expressed in real terms is -377 basis points.

Here’s the picture of what’s been going on with point-on-point seasonally adjusted CPI-IW inflation:

The key fact about India’s inflation crisis is: “Headline inflation”, which I would define as the year-on-year rise of CPI-IW, has been outside the target range of 4-5 percent in every single month from February 2006 onwards. High inflationary expectations have now set in. Given what is happening on prices of both tradeables and non-tradeables, I find myself skeptical about the sanguine picture on inflation that was painted on 25 October.

The bottom line: Headline inflation (year-on-year rise of CPI-IW) went up from 8.99% in August to 10.06% in September. This is inconsistent with a sanguine analysis of inflation on 25 October.

Or perhaps the econometricians at RBI have some aces up their sleeves. Will point-on-point seasonally adjusted inflation, under the benign influence of a strongly negative real rate, veer back into the 4-5 per cent range by December 2011? Stay tuned. So far, the score is: September 2011, 20.15%.

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