India’s RBI Chief Sees Rate Cut as Option Amid Virus Threat

India’s central bank governor said he’s ready to act to shield the economy from the coronavirus and reiterated there’s room to cut interest rates if needed.

Speaking in an interview with Bloomberg News in Mumbai hours before the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates by half a percentage point in an emergency move, Shaktikanta Das said “there is a strong reason for coordinated policy action.” For India, options include a rate cut and supporting the market through liquidity measures, he said.

Inflation, which had kept the central bank from easing since December, is expected to moderate, he said in an interview at the RBI’s headquarters on Tuesday. He argued the bank’s flexible inflation-targeting framework allows the central bank to look through recent price pressures and loosen policy.

“We’re ready for a response should the situation warrant,” Das said in a meeting room decorated with framed portraits of his predecessors. “And going forward, in the near future, I do expect some discussion through video conference or telephone conference among the central banks of the large economies, including India.”

The Fed’s action and the governor’s comments boost the case for deeper rate cuts, said Indranil Sen Gupta and Aastha Gudwani, economists at Bank of America Securities. “We grow more confident of our call of 50 basis points of RBI rate cuts in 2020,” they wrote in a note.

Australia and Malaysia also lowered interest rates on Tuesday, while Indonesia said its working on a second stimulus package. Monetary authorities in Japan and the U.K. pledged action to stabilize markets — a throwback to the coordinated action in the aftermath of the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.

“We, G-7 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, are closely monitoring the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and its impact on markets and economic conditions,” the G-7’s finance ministers and central bankers said Tuesday in a statement published after Das spoke with Bloomberg News.

“There is definitely a strong reason for coordinated policy action, because coronavirus has now turned out to be a global problem,” Das said. “So when the problem is global, naturally the response and the need for coordinated action is so much more.”

India’s sovereign bonds rallied, with the 10-year yield dropping 10 basis points to 6.24% as of 1:10 p.m. in Mumbai on Wednesday.

Situation Improved

Das Tuesday addressed lingering concerns about the nation’s shadow banks, saying only about four firms required active monitoring now and the sector no longer posed a risk to financial stability.

These non-bank finance companies have less “interconnectivity with other entities” such as banks and mutual funds, Das said. “Bank funding to the NBFC sector has shown very good improvement. The liquidity situation has improved.”

The RBI cut interest rates five times in 2019 to support an economy headed for its weakest expansion in 11 years, but has been on pause since December following a spike in inflation, which accelerated again to 7.6% in January — well above the central bank’s 2%-6% target. Data on Friday showed growth decelerated to 4.7% in the three months through December from a year ago, the third straight quarterly slowdown.

Despite the RBI lowering borrowing costs, loan growth has slowed to a more than two-year low in February. That’s partly because banks have been cautious about lending as they grapple with the world’s steepest bad-loan ratio, and in part due to companies holding back investments amid waning consumer demand in an economy that’s set for its weakest expansion in 11 years.

Das said the virus’s impact on India will come through two channels: trade with China and weaker global growth. The RBI would be able to quantify the hit to growth at its next policy meeting in April, he said.

With only five confirmed coronavirus cases as of March 2, India has been relatively insulated from the outbreak. However, the economy probably won’t be, since India depends on China for more than one-fifth of its total non-oil, non-gold goods imports.

Indian businesses aren’t currently facing any problem in securing supplies of raw materials, but there may be issues if the shutdowns in China continue for longer, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said last week. The government is ready to respond with measures, she had said separately.

“Everyone likes a rate cut,” Das said when asked if a coordinated response from global peers would lead to market pressure on him to also move. “We will do what we think is right.”

— With assistance by Arijit Ghosh, Anirban Nag, Malcolm Scott, and Unni Krishnan

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