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New RBI chief delivers election cut for PM Modi in a surprise move

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Mumbai: India’s new central bank chief delivered an unexpected interest rate cut, providing Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the kind of stimulus he needs to stoke economic growth in an election year.

In a sharp reversal from October, when the Reserve Bank of India took rate cuts off the table, Governor Shaktikanta Das — who took office in December — opened the door to more policy easing and brought growth firmly back onto the Monetary Policy Committee’s agenda. That was a departure from his predecessor Urjit Patel, whose singular aim was to meet the RBI’s 4 percent inflation mandate.

The surprise move came almost a week after Modi’s administration unveiled an expansionary budget, which included $13 billion of help for consumers ahead of the poll that’s due by May, and days after a top adviser to the prime minister said the RBI should cut rates.

 

Das, a career bureaucrat, was appointed shortly after Patel resigned as governor amid a heated public battle with the state, which led to questions about the central bank’s independence from politics. Modi’s government has been pushing the RBI to transfer more of its excess capital to the state as well as ease lending restrictions on banks to spur growth.

Government officials were quick to praise the RBI’s move, while economists were more cautious, concerned that the monetary and fiscal stimulus would be inflationary.

“A very balanced and pragmatic policy statement,” Economic Affairs Secretary Subhash Garg said after the rate move. It “underlines low inflation and high growth path for India for 2019-20.”

Das pointed to a sharp slowdown in inflation as justification for the 25 basis-point reduction, taking the repurchase rate to 6.25 percent. The MPC also reversed its policy stance to neutral from ‘calibrated tightening’ adopted in October.

“Reading between the lines, it appears that Mr. Das has changed the RBI’s paradigm overnight, to one where growth is the focus of policy and inflation merely an input into decisions,” said Freya Beamish, chief Asia economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics Ltd.

That opens the way for more rate cuts, she said, adding “we are worried by the U-turn and what this week says about the RBI’s frail autonomy and discipline.”

Market reaction to the surprise rate cut was subdued. The yield on the most-traded 2028 sovereign bonds fell just seven basis points, the rupee eked out a gain and the main stocks gauge closed flat on Thursday.

The U.S. Federal Reserve’s shift to a more dovish stance is giving emerging markets like India a reprieve after last year’s rate hikes. Central banks in the Philippines and Thailand also held rates steady this week.

Developed economies too are altering stance, with the Reserve Bank of Australia governor this week shifting to neutral.

Das, who was one of four MPC members who voted for a cut on Thursday, reiterated his commitment to supporting growth.

“It is vital to act decisively and in a timely manner to address the objective of growth once price stability as defined in the Act is achieved,” Das told reporters in Mumbai. “The shift in stance from calibrated tightening to neutral provides flexibility to address, and the room to address, sustained growth of India’s economy over the coming months as long as inflation remains benign.”

Inflation slowed to an 18-month low of 2.2 percent in December, remaining well below the RBI’s medium-term target, and not expected to breach that goal in the next 10 months, according to the central bank’s latest forecast.

Thursday’s move was the first rate cut since August 2017. The decision was predicted by just 11 of 43 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, with the rest expecting no change.

Since taking office Dec. 12, Das has eased banks’ asset recognition norms for medium and small scale enterprises, removed lending curbs on three weak state-run banks and has agreed to consider payment of an interim dividend to the government.

“Das has delivered what the Modi government was hoping for,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London. While this “pre-election rate cut” might boost growth, the longer-term concerns for investors will be about the RBI’s credibility as an inflation fighter, he added.


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RBI asks banks to grout ATMs to wall, floor for security by September-end

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Mumbai: The Reserve Bank asked banks to ensure their ATMs are grouted to a wall, pillar, or floor by September-end, except those installed in high secured premises such as airports, to enhance security of the cash vending machines.

In 2016, the RBI had st up a Committee on Currency Movement (CCM) to review the entire gamut of security of treasure in transit.

Based on the recommendations of the panel, the central bank has now issued instructions aimed at mitigating risks in ATM operations and enhancing security.

 

As part of the security measures, all “ATMs shall be operated for cash replenishment only with digital One Time Combination (OTC) locks”.

Also, “All ATMs shall be grouted to a structure (wall, pillar, floor, etc.) by September 30, 2019, except for ATMs installed in highly secured premises such as airports, etc. which have adequate CCTV coverage and are guarded by state/central security personnel”.

Further, banks may also consider rolling out a comprehensive e-surveillance mechanism at the ATMs to ensure timely alerts and quick response, it said.

The new measures to be adopted by banks are in addition to the existing instructions, practices and guidance issued by the RBI and law enforcement agencies.

The RBI also warned the banks that non-adherence of timelines or non-observance of the instructions would attract regulatory action including levy of penalty.

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SBI refuses to disclose communication from RBI, govt on electoral bonds

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New Delhi: The State Bank of India has refused to disclose any communication it received from the government or the Reserve Bank of India on electoral bonds, terming it “personal information” and held in “fiduciary capacity”.

Responding to an RTI filed by Pune-based activist Vihar Durve who had demanded copies of all letters, correspondence, directions, notifications or e-mails received from the RBI or any government department between 2017 and 2019, the SBI said it cannot be provided by it.

The bank cited two exemption clauses under the RTI Act to deny information — Section 8(1)(e) which pertains to information held in fiduciary capacity and Section 8(1)(J) which pertains to personal information of a person which has no link to any public activity.

 

“Information sought by the applicant cannot be disclosed as it is in fiduciary capacity, disclosure of which is exempted under Section 8(1)(e) and 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, 2005,” the Central Public Information Officer of the bank said in his reply.

The bank also refused to give any details of action taken by it on such communications from the RBI and the government.

The electoral bonds, for giving donations to political parties, are being sold through SBI only. The sale opens in SBI branches when the Finance Ministry issues a notification of their sale for a given period.

The scheme of electoral bonds notified by the Centre in 2018 has been challenged in the Supreme Court.

Only the political parties registered under Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (43 of 1951) and which secured not less than one per cent of the votes polled in the last general election to the House of the People or the Legislative Assembly of the State, shall be eligible to receive the bonds.

The bonds may be purchased by a person who is a citizen of India “or incorporated or established in India,” the government had said in a statement last year.

The bonds remain valid for 15 days and can be encashed by an eligible political party only through an account with the authorised bank within that period only.

A voluntary group working in the field of electoral reforms, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), has demanded a stay on the sale while the CPI(M) has challenged it before the Supreme Court in separate petitions.

ADR recently filed an application in the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the Electoral Bond Scheme, 2018 which was notified by the Centre in January last year.

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Walmart’s Flipkart, Indian startup GOQii settle dispute over sharp discounting

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New Delhi: Walmart unit Flipkart has settled a legal dispute with an Indian startup that alleged it suffered losses because its products were sharply discounted on the global retailer’s website.

GOQii, a seller of smartwatch-type health devices, sued Flipkart last month in a Mumbai court, alleging its devices were discounted by around 70 per cent to the retail price, much more than the two sides had agreed. The court had, as an interim measure, ordered device sales to be halted on Flipkart.

In a joint statement , the companies said the dispute had been resolved and GOQii health devices would again be available on Flipkart. They didn’t say how the settlement was reached.

 

Vishal Gondal, CEO of GOQii, told Reuters the company would withdraw the case against Flipkart. The e-commerce retailer’s “team worked on a resolution benefitting the brand and the customers”, Gondal said in the statement.

The legal spat was seen as a test case of the giant retailer’s operating strategy in the country.

Small traders and a right-wing group close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party have raised concerns about large e-commerce companies, saying they burn billions of dollars deeply discounting some products to lure customers onto their sites, in the expectation that they will also buy other goods.

GOQii said it signed an agreement last year with a Flipkart unit to sell two of its devices at a price not below 1,999 rupees (USD 28.63) and 1,499 rupees. It later found the devices were being sold for 999 rupees and 699 rupees, calling it “unauthorized” discounting.

In response, Flipkart said it reserved “the right to institute actions for defamation, both civil and criminal”, arguing it wasn’t responsible for any discounts which are determined by third-party firms which sell via its website.

The two companies struck a friendlier tone in their joint-statement on Friday as they brought the legal battle to an end.

“We have ensured constant engagement with GOQii to resolve any differences,” Flipkart said in the statement.

With a 19 per cent market share, GOQii was the second-biggest player in India’s so-called wearables market last year, data from industry tracker IDC showed. The market is dominated by China’s Xiaomi, with Samsung a small player.

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