The People's Bank of China (PBOC) is attempting a delicate balancing
act to keep economic growth on track while avoiding a debt-induced
Periodic cash squeezes as banks scramble for fresh funds highlight
the policy dilemma the PBOC faces in 2014, as it pushes financial
reforms to help rebalance the world's second biggest economy away
from the investment- and exports-led model that powered its rapid
Spikes in June and December in the interest rates at which banks
lend to each other signaled the central bank's determination to
reduce alarming levels of debt. But it must try to do so without
hurting growth by braking too hard on credit.
"It's difficult for the central bank to implement monetary policy,"
said Liang Youcai, senior economist at the State Information Centre,
a top government think-tank in Beijing.
"Monetary policy may be slightly tight in 2014 but the central bank
has to consider the impact on the real economy."
Demand for cash is strongest near the end of each quarter as banks
rush to meet regulatory requirements, such as loan-to-deposit and
reserve ratios, and pay out maturing financial products — a factor
that fuelled both episodes in 2013.
Analysts say the seasonal liquidity strain in money markets could
re-emerge when demand for cash from firms and depositors spikes
ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January. Banks
also tend to increase lending at the start of the year, while the
resumption of IPOs after a year-long freeze could also increase
demand for cash.
The central bank mostly stood by as interbank lending rates grew
more volatile in 2013, and was accused of worsening June's market
turbulence by keeping the purse strings too tight.
Since then it has sought to improve its communication with the
market — including by announcing its short-term liquidity operation
(SLO), by which it injects funds into the banking system, via its
new account on the microblogging platform Weibo.
But analysts do not expect a fundamental shift in the PBOC's
approach — it will continue to nudge the markets into pricing
short-term wholesale funding less attractively, while injecting
enough cash into the banking system during periods of strain to
avoid a full-blown crisis.
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang need to keep economic
growth humming to consolidate their power base as they try to forge
ahead with sweeping economic and social reforms unveiled late last
Sources at top government think tanks have told Reuters that for
2014, China will likely stick with last year's annual economic
growth target 7.5 percent.
China's economic growth is likely to come in at 7.6 percent in 2013,
the government has said, just above the official target and slightly
below 7.7 percent in 2012.
In a New Year's Eve statement after a regular monetary policy
committee meeting, the central bank pledged to maintain appropriate
liquidity and achieve reasonable growth in credit and social
financing, while improving and credit structures.
The central bank aims to target short-term interest rates, such as
the Shanghai interbank offered rate (SHIBOR), to manage bank
liquidity and credit, reducing the reliance on ad hoc controls such
as adjusting banks' loan-to-deposit ratios.
But the money market turbulence shows such a transition could be
risk-prone and take time.
"The traditional controls on credit are becoming less effective,
while the interest rate transmission mechanism has yet to be
established, This is a challenge for the PBOC," said Xu Gao, chief
economist at Everbright Securities in Beijing.
"If you control the price (of credit), you cannot control the
volume; if you control the volume, you cannot control the price."
The central bank will likely make measured use of policy tools such
as SLO, or reverse repos — in which banks temporarily swap
fixed-income securities for cash — to help lenders weather sporadic
cash strains this year, analysts say.
Rising money market rates have trickled down to bond yields, but the
impact on bank lending has so far been limited.
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China's cabinet has issued new guidelines to strengthen regulation
of so-called shadow-bank lending that has fuelled an explosion in
debt levels in recent years.
The PBOC hopes that higher money rates will ultimately force banks
to cut their risky lending, but for now demand for loans and other
forms of financing from the state firms and local governments that
suck up the bulk of funding remains strong.
Shadow banking, which includes trust loans, bank acceptance bills
and underground lending, has grown rapidly in China since 2010, and
many bankers say it was partly to blame for the interest rate spikes
in June and December.
Chinese banks have rushed to issue short-term, higher-yielding
wealth management products to skirt the rigid regulatory control on
credit, but still channel the funds into long-term investment
projects. When redemptions on such products fall due, banks have to
raise funds in the interbank market.
Calls for China to accelerate financial and fiscal reforms grew
louder last week after figures showed its indebted local governments
owe nearly $3 trillion in a debt build-up that some analysts called
Fiscal reform is all the more urgent as a lack of constraint on the
finances of heavily indebted local governments will make interest
rate reform less effective. A bigger slice of tax revenues would
reduce their need to borrow heavily or to sell land to raise
The central bank is keen to embrace market-driven interest rates to
help wean the economy off its reliance on investment, but analysts
say it has to consider the structural constraints and potential
The banking regulator — China Banking Regulatory Commission — has
been more cautious over the pace of interest rate liberalization
than the central bank for fear of fuelling banking risks, sources
familiar with the policy debate say.
The central bank, which removed controls on bank lending rates in
July, will have to tread more warily in freeing up the
long-depressed deposit rates, which could rise immediately and push
up borrowing costs, analysts say.
That could hurt manufacturers that are already operating on thin
margins due to the yuan's steady appreciation and rising wages.
"They need to choose the right timing. I don't think they will free
up bank deposit rates when they are under pressures to rise," said
Lu Zhengwei, chief economist at Industrial Bank in Shanghai.
The central bank is likely to unveil a long-awaited deposit
insurance system in early in 2014 to pave the way for freeing up
bank deposit rates, analysts say.
The insurance scheme would protect depositors as Beijing is
concerned some smaller lenders could go under as banks compete for
deposits in a more open regime.
Analysts expect the central bank to gradually lift the ceiling on
bank deposit rates — from the current 110 percent of the benchmark,
rather than freeing up the rates in one stroke.
"Reforms are clear but will not be very quick. The whole reform
process may not be completed in three years," said You Hongye, an
economist at Essence Securities in Beijing.
(Editing by Alex Richardson)
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