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Yellen's shadow looms large over policy at China's central bank

Monday, March 20, 2017 - 07:40

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Chinese officials have said they aren't following the Fed Chair Janet Yellen or anyone else, and that domestic conditions are the dominant driver for tightening policy.

[BEIJING] Call it the Yellen effect.

The Federal Reserve's March 15 rate hike underscored a subtle shift at the People's Bank of China: long reluctant to be influenced by global counterparts, it now appears to be in step with the US. That was displayed by the PBOC raising borrowing costs just hours after the Fed lifted interest rates last week. Observers see the objectives as supporting the yuan by keeping a lid on the interest rate differential and taming a surge in lending that's fuelled financial risk.

For all the domestic drivers, it's hard to ignore the Fed's policy path. Massive monetary stimulus in the US and around the world since the global financial crisis means decisions in Washington and Frankfurt now reverberate to Beijing in a way they haven't previously.

"Nobody can just sit there and pretend they're in a different world from what the European Central Bank or the Fed are doing," Nobel laureate Michael Spence, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, said in an interview in Beijing.

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"There's too much money flowing around. You could invent a world in which that would be irrelevant but that's not the world we live in, and I think that's true of every central bank including the PBOC."

Chinese officials have said they aren't following the Fed Chair Janet Yellen or anyone else, and that domestic conditions are the dominant driver for tightening policy.

PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan said in press conference this month that monetary policy is prudent and neutral and won't be altered because of interest rate differentials. Higher US interest rates impact China by luring capital out of the country.

"The interest rate differential can always motivate traders to make some short-term transactions, and money will move toward the place with higher interest rates," Mr Zhou said.

"But in the medium term, every country's interest rate is determined by its domestic economic conditions, such as its economic growth, employment, people's confidence in the economy and inflation."

The PBOC didn't respond to a fax Friday seeing comment on its monetary policy settings.

One of those domestic drivers is a housing price bubble that authorities are determined to deflate after 45 per cent of new loans last year went to mortgages, with most going to personal mortgages. Other pressures include accelerating factory gate prices and borrowing, which Bloomberg Intelligence estimates has pushed total debt to 258 per cent of economic output.

Still, not all are convinced. Economists say the lightning quick response to the Fed shows they have little option but to move in lock step. Stable domestic growth and improving market sentiment gives the PBOC an opportunity to tighten through the money markets, without hurting the economy by raising benchmark rates. The policy manoeuvre also helps support the yuan and keep a lid on capital outflows.

"The Fed tightening is the catalyst for China's raising borrowing costs in the open market," said Wen Bin, analyst at Essence Securities Co in Beijing.

"This situation will continue into the second half as long as China's economy keeps steady."

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