So Bank to Russia decided to maintain its benchmark rate at 8% today. The announcement is here http://www.cbr.ru/eng/press/pr.aspx?file=12092014_133319eng_dkp2014-09-12T13_29_04.htm. This was expected by majority of analysts: 17 expected no hike, 7 expected a 50bps hike and 1 expected a 25bps hike. My own view - tweeted out yesterday - that the decision could have gone in favour of a hike.
My rationale was (and remains the same for the next two-three months):
- Russian sanctions against Western exports of food pushed up inflation and inflationary expectations. I wrote about this before on a number of occasions. As far as we know, early September CPI accelerated upward momentum. In July, when inflation shot up to 7.5% (well ahead of 5% annual target), the CBR responded with a hike and the Government revised its outlook for inflation (July decision raised rates from 7.5% to 8%). August figures (through September 8) suggest inflation has increased to around 7.7% and core inflation hit 8.0%.
- Ruble weaknesses persist: the currency is now down roughly 5% on end-of-July figures. CBR's reluctance to intervene aggressively in the FX markets means the pressures are still building up.
- Government policy favours higher inflation: the Government is pushing for a hike in VAT and for an introduction of a regional sales tax (ca 3%) on top of that. On the related, PM Dmitri Medveded held a meeting between cabinet ministers and a panel of Russian economists discussing various options for addressing fiscal risks. The group of economists invited was unanimously against the introduction of a regional sales tax, preferring to increase VAT instead.
Nonetheless, the CBR is clearly watching for any effects of July hike on inflation. As noted in the release, money supply growth fell off the cliff: down from 17.1% a year ago to 6.5% this year.
The CBR is also clearly concerned with the deposits situation in the banks, noting that higher rates create incentives for raising savings. This represents a policy of switching as much as possible of the lost funding from international markets (sanctions) into deposits funding.
The CBR has also revised its economic outlook which is now much gloomier than that of the Government. Utilisation capacity remains high, but labour productivity growth is sluggish, per CBR, which suggests that the CBR is more pre-occupied with structural weaknesses in the economy. The CBR now expects the economy to shrink by -0.2% y/y in Q3 2014 and expand by just 0.4% in 2014 overall. CBR outlook for 2015 is pretty dire too: GDP growth of just 0.9-1.1%.
With the above points in mind, it is pretty clear that CBR will have to continue raising rates in months ahead, so the current pause is just a temporary 'hold-back and watch' scenario.
Meanwhile, the Economics Ministry stepped up its criticisms of the CBR - an open warfare that has been going on over the summer. CBR July hike was uncoordinated with the Government and was in a direct response to the CBR outlook forward, reflecting inflationary pressures on foot of trade sanctions and the risks arising from planned tax hikes. Worse, CBR deputy chairwoman Ksenia Yudayeva openly criticised the government for failing to take into the account the inflationary risks inherent in the proposed tax policies. The Government and the Economics Ministry are clearly unhappy with monetary tightening which comes amidst decelerating investment in the economy and at the time when Western sanctions have already severely restricted major banks' access to international funding markets. These restrictions are feeding through into retail rates and choking off already fragile credit growth.
Back in August, President Putin visibly backed the Economics Ministry in the fight with the CBR when he accepted the Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev's proposal that future inflation targets be set by jointly by CBR, his ministry and the Ministry of Finance. This comes on top of the already established consultative representation for the two ministries at the CBR board. So far, the CBR stuck to its medium term target structure based on inflation target of 4%+/-1.5%. And in today's note the CBR confirmed this target as still standing.