As Covid Cases Spiral Upwards, Will Reserve Bank Hold Rates Steady?

Monetary Policy: At its last policy meet in February, RBI maintained policy rates at pre-existing levels

Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das will announce the policy decision on Wednesday, at the end of a scheduled review of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) that began on Monday, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and imposition of fresh restrictions to control the rampaging virus. India reported a record rise in coronavirus cases on April 5, becoming only the second country after the United States to register more than 1 lakh new cases in a day.

Experts reckon that the Reserve Bank will maintain status quo on policy rates at the first bi-monthly monetary policy review for the new fiscal as the economy faces a renewed threat to growth from the pandemic.

Maharashtra, which contributes about 15 per cent the country’s overall GDP, has already announced a partial lockdown and Delhi has unveiled night curfew measures to curtail the second Covid19 wave.

All economists surveyed by Bloomberg as of Monday expect the six-member Monetary Policy Committee to keep the repo rate unchanged at 4 per cent. In a Reuters poll, 65 of 66 economists surveyed said the RBI’s monetary policy committee (MPC) will leave rates unchanged.

At the last policy meet in February, the central bank had maintained key policy rates at pre-existing levels and said that it expected the economy to expand 10.5 per cent in the year that began April 1 after an estimated 7.7 per cent contraction in the previous 12 months. The banking regulator had maintained the repo rates – the key interest rates at which the RBI lends money to commercial banks – steady at a 19-year low of 4 per cent. The reverse repo rate – the rate at which RBI borrows from banks – has also been left untouched at 3.35 per cent.

The Reserve Bank had last cut its policy rates on May 22, 2020, in an off-policy cycle at a time when India was in the caught in the 1st wave of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic. The central bank has slashed its key lending rate i.e. repo rate by 115 basis points since March 2020 to cushion the economy from the shock of coronavirus crisis.

Experts will, however, watch for any explicit forward guidance from the central bank as the return of the virus threatens the fragile economic recovery that is underway. The RBI’s action on the inflation front will also be closely watched as the annual retail inflation rate rose to 5.03 per cent in February, a three-month high due to the rise in fuel prices; analysts are worried that high commodity prices could push inflation higher in coming months.

Last month, the government asked the Reserve Bank to maintain retail inflation at 4 per cent, with a margin of 2 per cent on either side for another five-year period ending March 2026.

Investors would also be hoping for clarity on the Governor’s agenda for the bond markets, which have been recently roiled by hardening yields worldwide.

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