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Headline [email protected] Low, Hopes Of RBI Rate Cut Rise

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India's headline inflation slowed to its lowest level in three years, hardening expectations for an interest rate cut by the RBI later this month to boost an economy that is set to post its slowest growth in a decade.

The wholesale price index (WPI), India's main inflation indicator, rose an annual 7.18 per cent in December, the slowest since December 2009 and below analysts' forecast of 7.4 per cent rise in a Reuters poll. Wholesale prices rose 7.24 percent in November.

The better-than-expected inflation data left most analysts debating not whether the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) would cut interest rates at its policy review on January 29, but by how much.

"The probability of a rate cut in January-end has increased," Abheek Barua, chief economist at HDFC Bank in New Delhi, said. "But the next question is whether it will be 25 basis points or higher."

Following the inflation data, financial markets rallied in anticipation of an early rate cut. India's 10-year bond yield fell to its lowest in 29 months. The rupee strengthened against the dollar, while swap rates fell.

The slowdown in the headline inflation was led by a moderation in the prices of fuel and manufactured goods. The annual reading for October was revised down to 7.32 percent from 7.45 percent, the government said in a release on Monday.

And a drop in non-manufacturing inflation, used by the RBI to gauge demand-driven price pressures, to 4.2 percent in December from 4.5 percent a month ago further bolstered hopes for the long-awaited cut.

Last month, amid mounting calls from politicians and industry for a lower borrowing rates, the RBI signalled a possible reduction in the January-March quarter.

The policy repo rate has remained unchanged at 8.0 per cent since April 2011, putting India's interest rates among the highest of the major economies.

While a slowdown in the global economy has prompted many other central banks to support growth through monetary stimulus, the RBI has hitherto rebuffed calls for lower lending rates citing high inflation and the size of the fiscal deficit.

Economic growth that once looked poised to hit double-digits has been stuck below 6 percent for the past three quarters, hurt by a combination of weak investment and consumer demand.

Highr Consumer Prices
The slowdown has constrained job opportunities for a bulging young population, a worry for the Congress-led ruling alliance as it prepares for a series of state elections and a general election due in 2014.

It has also buffeted government revenues, swollen the fiscal deficit and put the country's investment-grade sovereign credit rating on the line.

Pilloried previously for his government's inaction as the economy lost steam, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has launched a slew of bold measures since late last year.

Still, the economy is showing little signs of an upturn. Industrial output unexpectedly shrank in November, its fifth fall in the last eight months, and call for lower interest rates have grown louder.

Barua and several other economists, however, saw the RBI opting for caution deciding the scale of any cut, particularly as consumer prices were less encouraging.

Annual consumer price inflation accelerated to 10.56 percent in December on higher food prices from 9.90 percent a month ago.

Elevated retail inflation, a hike in rail passenger fares and a possible hike in fuel prices may limit the RBI's room for maneuver.

In a bid to mend its strained finances, the government last week hiked railway passenger fares after a gap of nine years and is studying a proposal to raise heavily subsidised fuel prices.

"We could see inflation below 7 percent by March, but the caveat is diesel prices," said A. Prasanna, economist at ICICI Securities, Primary Dealership, in Mumbai.

"At some point, the government has to raise diesel prices, as well as coal, and electricity prices. So, we see a scope for a total of 50 basis points cut in rates in January-March and then we expect a lengthy pause from the RBI."
Wholesal Price Inflation
Government data also showed India's annual wholesale price inflation eased to 7.18 per cent in December. Analysts had expected wholesale prices, India's main inflation gauge, to rise 7.40 per cent on year, faster than an annual rise of 7.24 per cent in November.
The Reserve Bank of India had projected December inflation of around 8 per cent in its October policy review. The reading for October was revised down to 7.32 per cent from 7.45 per cent earlier.
Radhika Rao, economist with Forecast PTE, Singapore. 
"While emerging signals on price pressures are still mixed — December CPI released quickened to 10.6 per cent y/y on higher food costs, along with elevated PMI input/output price indices — odds for a 25 bps cut at the January meeting have increased." 
Abheek Barua, chief economist with HDFC Bank in New Delhi 
"We believe the RBI will draw comfort from a) marked pullback in the non-food manufacturing index at 20-month low b) headline WPI could ease below 7 per cent by March c) government's intention to rationalise suppressed price elements and possibly introduce reforms-oriented measures at the end-February budget. We pencil in 25 bps cut at the 29 January rate review, followed by another like-sized cut in March."
"The number is much better than we had anticipated and it has come on the back of continued improvement in core inflation, which is heartening as it shows monetary policy has been working.
"The probability of a rate cut in January end has increased but the next question is whether it will be 25 basis points or higher. I think the RBI would want to be cautious given that there could be fuel price increase, and the passenger price increase could have an impact on CPI.
"To address the liquidity shortage, I think the RBI will address it through open market operations (OMOs) rather than CRR. I think it will be a dovish policy, and they will certainly give a guidance on OMOs. They would want to keep the CRR powder dry for the exchange rate situation."
Robert Prior-Wandesforde, Director, Asian Economics Research, Credit Suisse, Singapore
"We also have the CPI numbers out as well which were a surprise ... in the opposite direction, and moved up quite sharply. We know the WPI is more important, but we also know the CPI can't be ignored. I think it's fairly finely balanced but 50 basis points (in rate cuts) is slightly more likely than 25 in our view."
Saugata Bhattacharya, economist, Axis Bank, Mumbai 
"The revision (for October) has happened on the downside. That's very good news. The increase in the food price index is because of the cold wave in north India. It is a seasonal factor and not worrisome. We are definitely looking at a rate cut in January. The debate is whether it will be one large 50 basis points cut, or in small steps. Going by the recent economic indicators, we think the Reserve Bank of India might actually go for a 50 basis points cut."
Rupa Rege Nitsure, chief economist, Bank of Baroda, Mumbai
"Headline inflation at 7.18 per cent is a welcome relief. Core inflation has further eased to 4.24 per cent on sustained reduction in the pricing power of manufacturing companies. Today's inflation reading combined with depressed industrial scenario strengthens the case for a 50 basis points reduction in the repo rate in the next review of the Reserve Bank's policy."
Samiran Chakraborty, regional head of research, Standard Chartered Bank, Mumbai 
"We are looking at 25 basis points rate cut in January and for the full year we see 100 basis points of cuts. We have to see how much of diesel price increase is effected, whether it is 1 rupee a month or a one-time price increase. If the government removes the entire subsidy on diesel, then it will have a 80-100 basis points impact on inflation.
"We will probably see inflation below 7 per cent by March. What is important is that inflation is trending down but headline inflation is still high, and given that we will see 25 basis points of rate cut rather than 50 basis points."
Leif Eskesen, chief economist for india and Asean, HSBC, Singapore
"There is a relatively good chance that the Reserve Bank of India may act (cut interest rates) as soon as January. The historical revision is encouraging and breaks a trend. That together with a lower headline number could be encouraging to the RBI."
Shubhada Rao, chief economist, YES Bank, Mumbai 
"Quite clearly, there's relief on the manufacturing trend. In any case, the data on the CPI was not very positive, although the core CPI inflation at 0.51 per cent was a 9-month low. The data gave mixed signals.
"In terms of policy imprint, we continue to expect the RBI will cut rates by 25 basis points in January and give a commitment to maintain comfortable liquidity through open market operations. However, the quantum of monetary easing has become conditional due to higher headline CPI number.
"Between January and March, we expect the government to raise diesel prices by two rupees and LPG prices by 50 rupees/cylinder. The direct impact of that on inflation should be about 30-35 basis points."
Upasna Bhardwaj, Economist, ING Vysya Bank, Mumbai 
"WPI figures provide considerable respite, especially with core inflation falling to the lowest level since April 2010. However, the elevated retail inflation continues to point towards persistently high food price pressures. Nevertheless, the easing WPI inflation does provide scope for RBI to cut policy rate by 25 bps in the forthcoming meeting and begin cautiously focusing on growth."
Shakti Satapathy, Fixed Income Strategist, AK Capital, Mumbai 
"The moderation in the core inflation at 4.32 per cent is quite encouraging and makes a case for higher rate cut (50 bps) in the forthcoming policy meet. Having said that, the comfortable yield levels and lesser threat of a high interest scenario in the coming days might push the central bank in taking a conservative rate cut of 25 bps in a staggered manner over next two policy meets. We believe the higher base and softening core to guide the RBI in shifting its focus to growth."
Sujan Hajra, chief economist, Anand Rathi Securities, Mumbai 
"The WPI numbers are not only coming off, the revision was also lower. Inflation is clearly on a downward trajectory. With the industrial output numbers released earlier, it clearly looks that the RBI will be inclined to cut rates in January."
Suresh Kumar Ramanathan, Head Of Regional FX and Rates Strategy CIMB, Kuala Lumpur 
"Pipeline price pressures are down but end prices are still high. Once again the dilemma RBI faces in the midst of stubborn price pressures that shows no tendency to ease. It's once again down to the wires for RBI at the end of this month when monetary policy is deliberated. Weak industrial production, easing pipeline price pressures but high CPI, a very delicate task for RBI ahead. I still see an even chance of cut but as mentioned, the RBI is in a dilemma."
A. Prasanna, Economist, ICICI Securities, Primary Dealership, Mumbai
"We expect the manufacturing index to go up in January. But, based on this data, we expect the RBI to cut rates by 25 basis points. We could see inflation below 7 per cent by March, but the caveat is diesel prices. At some point, the government has to raise diesel prices, as well as coal, and electricity prices. So, we see a scope for a total of 50 basis points cut in rates in January-March and then we expect a lengthy pause from the RBI."