Russian central bank keeps monetary policy rate on hold at 7.75%, outlook for modest rises in inflation in 2019

Russian central bank keeps monetary policy rate on hold at 7.75%, outlook for modest rises in inflation in 2019
The Central Bank of Russia kept monetary policy rates on hold at 7.75% and guided for 5-5.5% inflation for all 2019
By bne IntelliNews February 10, 2019

The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) kept monetary policy rate on hold at 7.75% at its regular meeting on February 8, saying that inflationary pressures are under control despite a recent rise in prices.

“On 8 February 2019, the Bank of Russia Board of Directors decided to keep the key rate at 7.75% per annum. In January 2019, annual inflation held at the lower bound of the Bank of Russia expectations,” the regulator said in its statement.

Inflation fell to a post Soviet low of 2.2% in the first quarter of last year, well below the CBR’s target rate of 4%, leading the central bank to cut rates to a record low of 7.25% in February.

However, a fresh round of sanctions in April, the fall of the ruble against the dollar and the expectation by the population of rising prices all contributed to inflation beginning to climb again in the second half of the year, leading the CBR to hike rates twice in September and December.

Inflation rose to 4.3% in December, slightly ahead of expectations, and jumped again in January to 5% in annualised terms partly driven up by the hike in the VAT rate from 18% to 20% that came into effect in January.

“Inflation expectations of households and businesses increased somewhat. The contribution of the VAT increase to annual consumer price growth in January was moderate. The effect of the VAT increase on inflation can be fully assessed no sooner than this April. There persists uncertainty over future external conditions and certain food price dynamics. The balance of risks remains skewed towards pro-inflationary risks, especially over a short-term horizon. Given the decision taken, the Bank of Russia forecasts annual inflation to range between 5.0 and 5.5% by the end of 2019 and return to 4% in the first half of 2020,” the CBR said.

Analysts are divided over where inflation will go in 2019 and hence if the CBR will return to its monetary easing or tighten again. While the CBR has relatively modest assumptions for inflation’s increase this year, many analysts are predicting inflation to rise to 6% by April, before easing again in the second half of the year.

However, Sberbank CIB says that inflation will fall to 4.5% this year due to depressed consumer demand and underinvestment. VTB Capital (VTBC) agrees that poor demand will keep prices down this year and the CBR confirmed that the feed through affect of the VAT increase has been a lot more modest than some had feared.

“Why is the [inflationary effect of the VAT hike] modest? Basically there are two non-contradictory hypotheses,” Alexander Isakov, chief economist at VTB Capital, said in a note. “VAT front-loading. Given imperfect local competition and the fully expected nature of the VAT base rate adjustment, it makes sense for producers and retailers to adjust prices preemptively… And demand is softening. Household demand strength might have been withering into the year-end, as inflation climbed from the lows of early 2018 and started to bring down real wage growth. We believe both effects were at work.”

VTBC calculates that in order for inflation to peak at around 6% in April-May, average monthly inflation in February-March needs be 0.6%. And while this is not unimaginable, it is at odds with the recent weekly reports that put monthly price growth on the order of 0.1-0.2pp.