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[SHANGHAI] China's yuan jumped to a near seven-month high on Thursday, fuelling speculation that the government was pulling strings to prop up the beleaguered currency in response to last week's credit rating downgrade by Moody's.
The currency has been in the midst of an extended slide that began in mid-2015 during the meltdown in China's stock markets and accelerated last year as the dollar spiked and economic growth slowed, leading investors to shift cash offshore. At one point it was at an eight-year low.
But since Moody's downgraded China on May 24 - citing slowing growth and ballooning debt - the yuan has strengthened sharply and was trading Thursday at around 6.7800 per US dollar, a level not seen since early November.
Its offshore rate, which is less controlled by Beijing, was 6.7330, its strongest since mid-October.
Late last week, China said it was considering changing its mechanism for guiding the yuan's value, an announcement widely interpreted as a sign Beijing would tighten its grip despite pledges to allow market forces to play a larger role.
Beijing currently sets a daily trading band for the currency, within which it is allowed to move, but a statement by a central bank agency indicated it may tweak that system to give authorities more control as a buffer against market forces.
Analysts said that announcement and government intervention in the currency market have likely contributed to the yuan's surge since the downgrade, which has confounded expectations.
"This might reflect a shift in market expectations, but official intervention probably also played a large part," Capital Economics said in a report.
"The key implication of the change to the fixing regime, though, would seem to be that officials are determined not to allow sizeable depreciation."
The People's Bank of China set the yuan's reference rate at 6.8090 to the dollar, 0.79 per cent stronger than the previous day, according to official figures, the biggest single-day jump since early January.
US President Donald Trump throughout his election campaign last year said China was intentionally weakening its currency to give its firms an unfair export advantage. However, since taking office he has rowed back on the claims.
China has gradually given the yuan freer rein over the years, but still only allows it to rise or fall two percent daily on either side of the fixed reference point.
"The Moody's downgrade and a weaker spot rate compared to the fixing could have spurred the authorities to change the fixing mechanism and potentially intervene in the market," Jason Daw, Singapore-based head of emerging-market currency strategy at Societe Generale SA, told Bloomberg News.
Despite liberalisation pledges, China is believed to be exerting more control over its financial markets while navigating slowing growth and runaway debt.
The IMF has warned that China's debt mountain was growing at a dangerous pace and that a default could "imperil global financial stability".
Moody's crystalised these concerns with its credit rating downgrade, the first for China in nearly three decades. China reacted angrily, saying Moody's "overestimated" its economic problems.
Michael Every, Rabobank's head of Asia-Pacific financial markets research of Asia-Pacific, said China's intervention in the currency market was now so clear that "increasingly there is no real market to speak of".
"Will it stop depreciation? No. It will just delay it and make asset-price deflation worse, especially if the Fed hikes interest rates," he said.