China is saving stimulus for trade war winter as yuan weakens

Having allowed the yuan to weaken past seven per US dollar, the People's Bank of China has freed itself from an artificial constraint that it has been bound by for years.
Having allowed the yuan to weaken past seven per US dollar, the People's Bank of China has freed itself from an artificial constraint that it has been bound by for years.PHOTO: REUTERS

YICHUN (China) • Chinese policymakers are holding back from rolling out the big guns of monetary stimulus, keeping options in reserve as the trade stand-off with the US risks morphing into a global currency war.

The People's Bank of China called late on Friday for a "rational" view on current headwinds, signalling that the targeted approach to shoring up output would continue.

Officials are sticking to a cautious monetary strategy even after tensions with Washington worsened, with US President Donald Trump's claims of Beijing's currency manipulation adding sensitivity to any stimulus measures that would depress the yuan. At the same time, the weakening of the currency past seven per US dollar removes one barrier for a cut to interest rates should the trade war deteriorate to the point where stronger action is needed.

"Policymakers are fine with the current state of the economy," said Mr Larry Hu, head of China economics at Macquarie Securities in Hong Kong. "But if growth continues to slow, at certain point, the priority will shift to growth stabilisation."

Former central bankers gathered for a policy symposium in the country's far north-east warned last Saturday that the confrontation with the US is deepening.

The US' labelling of China as a currency manipulator "signifies the trade war is evolving into a financial war and a currency war", and policymakers must prepare for long-term conflicts, Mr Chen Yuan, a former deputy governor of the People's Bank of China (PBOC), said at a meeting in Yichun, Heilongjiang.

The challenges are not just from the US dollar. The International Monetary Fund said in its annual report on the Chinese economy released last Friday in Washington that if the United States escalates its current threat to add 10 per cent extra tariffs on the remainder of its imports from China to 25 per cent, growth would be trimmed by 0.8 percentage point, leading to "significant negative spillovers globally".

It is in that kind of scenario that China may be forced to turn to more aggressive monetary support, even in the face of rising domestic debt risks and asset price bubbles. Efforts to prop up growth have already propelled the stock of corporate, household and government debt to more than 300 per cent of gross domestic product, according to an Institute of International Finance report last month.

Nevertheless, having allowed the yuan to weaken past seven per US dollar, the PBOC has freed itself from an artificial constraint that it has been bound by for years, allowing borrowing costs to be reduced further without - in theory - the need to prop up the currency.

The Chinese central bank fixed the yuan midpoint at 7.0211 per dollar yesterday - weaker than Friday's setting but stronger than market expectations.

Bloomberg economists Qian Wan and David Qu said: "In our view, the PBOC will cut benchmark interest rates in the coming months. The near-term risk is obvious, including increased market volatility and pressure for capital flight. Our view, though, is that the PBOC has the capacity to prevent currency depreciation from getting out of hand."

So far, policymakers have not given any hint of changes to the one-year lending rate which would affect the price of borrowing across the whole economy, or reduce the price of loans to banks in the wake of the US Federal Reserve's latest cut.

Instead, PBOC officials have signalled that an impending reform of the interest rate system could do the work of a rate cut, by transmitting policy more effectively.

Targeted reductions in the amount of money banks park at the central bank and use of medium-term loans to ease funding constraints are likely to continue. Above all, with domestic monetary policy unchanged, the yuan's weakening beyond seven to the US dollar could, if sustained, essentially absorb the impact of Mr Trump's latest tariff increase, said China Merchants Bank.

"Stability is still the focus, with quality growth and the employment market more important than GDP," said Mr Jeff Ng, chief Asia economist at Continuum Economies in Singapore. "China will allow a slowdown and is prepared to do so."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2019, with the headline 'China is saving stimulus for trade war winter as yuan weakens'. Print Edition | Subscribe