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PERSPECTIVE

China smiles and waits as the world cuts rates

Beijing can discipline traders and take the long view, it can also co-ordinate fiscal and monetary policies.

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China's central bank, however, can also be said to be the world's least independent because it has to heed the will of the Politburo, headed by President Xi Jinping.

CHINA'S state-driven economic model has created many problems. Monetary policy isn't one of them.

With the United States Federal Reserve cutting rates this week and the European Central Bank poised to follow suit in September, the temptation is high for other central banks to fall in line.

More likely than not, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) will sit tight, watching developed nations play out what is a zero-sum game. 

Increasingly, developed nations' central bankers are using up the ammunition they have available to support their economies in the event of a downturn. That's particularly evident with the Fed this year. Traders now expect chairman Jerome Powell to cut rates by at least another half-percentage point by the end of 2020, the most among G-10 nations.

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Yet the US dollar keeps appreciating, much to the annoyance of US President Donald Trump. A stronger dollar, unfortunately, damps expectations for consumer inflation, the key metric Mr Powell is trying to lift.

One key reason the dollar isn't responding is that all the big central banks are easing, cancelling out each other's efforts. This means that when a real crisis hits, they'll have less ability to respond.

This is worrying because US corporate balance sheets have been compromised by a decade of easy money and a wave of debt-fuelled buyouts by private-equity firms.

By now, these central banks are hostage to traders and politicians. Mr Powell had no choice but to cut rates on Wednesday, because to take no action would have unleashed a cataclysm on markets.

The chances are that a September cut is also inevitable, because futures traders have already priced in a 60 per cent probability.

Traders and investors have been conditioned to expect steady support from central banks and react like spoiled brats when it isn't forthcoming. This kind of behaviour is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Plus and minus

By contrast, the PBOC isn't intimidated by traders. One doesn't need to look far for evidence. China's 10-year government bond yield is relatively unchanged since the end of 2018, while there's been a half-point compression in its US equivalent, flattening the yield curve once again.

I'm not saying the PBOC is independent; far from it. China's central bank in one sense is the world's least independent because it's forced to heed the will of the Politburo, headed by President Xi Jinping.

It's a foregone conclusion that China won't cut rates right now, because the latest Politburo meeting used the key phrase that "an apartment is to be lived in, not speculated on".

That's code for "keep home prices stable", which Mr Xi has made a linchpin of his political legacy. In recent years, each time the PBOC reopened the liquidity taps, a real estate bubble inflated.

More in toolbox

What China's policymakers can do is discipline traders and take the long view - something Western central bankers are finding increasingly difficult.

And they have more in their toolbox. Unlike the Fed, the PBOC's balance sheet is still fairly clean, since it didn't engage in any large-scale asset-buying programme.

More importantly, China's technocrats can co-ordinate fiscal and monetary policies, a state of affairs that Western advocates of modern monetary theory can only dream of.

When the dust settles and China is sitting pretty, its market will look more alluring to global investors. Will developed nations regret undermining central bank independence as much as they have in recent years? Perhaps. More likely than not, China's policymakers are smiling right now. BLOOMBERG