The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) kept interest rates at record lows but committed to a massive government bond purchase programme, keeping monetary policy accommodative amid concerns rising COVID-19 cases could derail a nascent economic recovery.
The monetary policy committee decided unanimously to leave the RBI's repo rate, its key lending rate, unchanged at 4% and the reverse repo rate, its borrowing rate, at 3.35%.
"The stance of monetary policy will remain accommodative till the prospects of sustained recovery are well secured while closely monitoring the evolving outlook for inflation," Governor Shaktikanta Das told a news conference.
The RBI has slashed the repo rate by 115 basis points (bps) since the pandemic first struck India in March 2020, extending an earlier easing cycle.
After suffering its deepest recession on record last year, the world's fifth-largest economy returned to growth in December quarter, expanding 0.4% growth year-on-year.
BOND YIELDS FALL
Most significantly for the bond market, the RBI announced a secondary market government securities acquisition programme, calling it G-SAP 1.0.
RBI will purchase 1 trillion rupees worth of bonds from the market in the April-June quarter under the new scheme, Das said.
Das also reiterated that the banking system liquidity would remain in surplus even after meeting all requirements of the financial market segments and productive sectors of the economy and other normal liquidity operations will also continue.
The purchase programme sheds some light for traders who have clamoured for the RBI to provide a schedule for its open market operations (OMO), as they fret over how the market will absorb the 12 trillion rupees the government plans to borrow in 2021/22 in order to fund support for the pandemic-stricken economy.
"The G-SAP will almost serve the purpose of an OMO calendar, which had been on the bond market's wish-list for a long time," said Siddhartha Sanyal, chief economist at Bandhan Bank.
The benchmark 10-year bond yield was at 6.09%, after falling to a low of 6.05% earlier but was still down from its previous close of 6.12%.
The blue chip NSE Nifty 50 index and the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex both rose nearly 1.1% after the central bank left is key rates unchanged.
Ominously, a second wave of the epidemic saw daily infections this week pass the peak of the first wave seen last September.
"The recent surge in COVID-19 infections... adds uncertainty to the domestic growth outlook amidst tightening of restrictions by some state governments," Das said.
The annual retail inflation rate rose to a three-month high of 5.03% in February due to higher fuel prices and Das said the progress of the monsoon, which impacts food prices, would be crucial to inflation trends.
The RBI has a mandate to keep retail inflation within the 2-6% band with 4% as a medium-term target.
The RBI retained its GDP growth forecast for the new financial year at 10.5%, after a 7.5% contraction in 2020/21, while raising its inflation projection to 5% for the fourth quarter of 2020/21, and 5.2% for the first two quarters of 2021/22.
Rupa Rege Nitsure, chief economist at L&T Financial Services said, however, that those projections "do not reflect the uncertainties created by the second wave of COVID infections and the use of blunt measures like lockdowns in many states."