Chidambaram advises banks to cut interest rates

Finance minister P Chidambaram

NEW DELHI: Finance minister P Chidambaram urged state-run banks on Wednesday to lend money at cheaper rates as he looks to stimulate consumer demand, the main driver of a sluggish economy that has been pulled down by high inflationand interest rates.

The Reserve Bank of India ( RBI) has cut repo rates, the rate at which it lends money to banks, by 75 basis points since January this year, but most banks have not lowered lending rates.

“We have advised the banks to look at the base rate,” Chidambaram told reporters after meeting the heads of state-run banks. “In my view, reduction of the base rate will be a powerful booster, will be a powerful stimulus to the credit growth.”

India’s economy grew at a decade low of 5% in the last fiscal year ending March.

Each bank was free to take its own decision, Chidambaram stressed. State-run banks, which operate with a considerable degree of autonomy from the finance ministry, account for 75% of bank loans.

Banks have been worried that a sharp cut in lending rates could affect their profit margins in the absence of strong domestic demand and impact on bank deposits. The average base lending rate of Indian banks is around 10%.

Chidambaram said the heads of the state banks had assured him during Wednesday’s meeting that they would review their base lending rates by the month end.

Chidambaram also said state-run banks were expected to open 10,000 more branches in the current financial year.

India plans to directly transfer cash benefits to bank accounts of people under various welfare schemes over the next few years and is expanding its banking network.

Currently, more than 40 percent of the 1.2 billion population is not covered by the banking system. Creating more branches would allow Indians, particularly those in rural areas, to get credit at a cheaper rate. Many now have to rely on money-lenders who charge up to 30% interest rates.

The increase in depositors will also allow banks to expand their business and lend to the corporate sector.