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India's plunging inflation rate opens door to monetary easing

Reuters  |  NEW DELHI 

By Kumar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's dropped to an 18-month low of 2.19 percent in December, strengthening views of some economists that the central could ease monetary policy next month as prices for many items fell and the nation faces a

declined to its lowest level since June 2017, as prices fell for third straight month, government data showed on Monday.

The outcome was lower than the 2.33 percent recorded in November and broadly in line with a 2.20 percent increase forecast by economists in a poll. The rate has now plummeted from 5.07 percent in January 2018.

The CPI figures followed release of data earlier in the day showing the annual wholesale inflation rate eased to an eight month low of 3.80 percent in December. Figures released on Friday showed that industrial output growth declined to 0.5 percent in November.

India's economy is slowing, dragged down by reduced growth in consumer spending and weak growth in the farm sector.

The economic weakness is a problem for Narendra Modi, who has already been struggling to meet ambitious job creation targets ahead of national elections to be held by May.

The Reserve of India's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), which mainly monitors and kept interest rates unchanged last month, will have leeway to soften its monetary stance at its Feb. 7 meeting, economists said.

Arun Thukral, of Axis Securities, said given that inflation had trended down for the past six months, the central had room to ease its monetary stance to neutral initially, and then cut its benchmark repo rate by 25 basis points.

"Probably, at its February 2019 meet, RBI would mellow its stance to neutral and wait for April 2019 meet for reducing the rates," he said.

LESS HAWKISH TONE

With inflation easing to near 2 percent, the lower end of RBI's 2-6 percent target, there is room for the central bank to change its currently hawkish tone.

However, economists said the RBI could wait for the signal on federal spending in the annual budget to be presented on Feb. 1, as a substantial hike in spending ahead of the election could push up prices.

"Any fiscal slippage at the central or state level will have a bearing on the inflation outlook," said Thukral, adding that the government could announce some populist measures, such as a basic income system for those in rural areas or an input support scheme for farmers and landless labourers in the budget.

Retail prices in December were down 2.51 percent from a year earlier, compared with a 2.61 percent fall a month earlier. The figures indicate that rural incomes remain under pressure while consumers benefit from easing inflation.

Anger among farmers contributed to the defeat of Modi's in three key state elections late last year.

One example of spending weakness is cars. In December, passenger vehicle sales fell 0.43 percent to 238,692 units from a year earlier, data from the (SIAM) showed.

Still, big moves in fuel and in recent months may be masking what is happening to prices in the wider economy. Three economists spoken to by after the CPI figures were released said they on average estimated India's core inflation rate, excluding food and fuel costs, was 5.7 percent in December, unchanged from the previous month.

Recently, cooling inflation expectations have also been driven by and a rupee currency that has managed to stabilise after a steep sell-off.

are down more than 30 percent since Oct. 3, when they hit the highest in almost four years, and the rupee bounced nearly 6 percent after touching an all-time low of 74.48 on Oct. 11.

(Additional reporting by in MUMBAI; Editing by Martin Howell, and Peter Graff)

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, January 14 2019. 19:31 IST
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