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Renminbi Interest Rate to Remain Unchanged

Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People's Bank of China, admitted that China had gone from fighting deflation to watching out for inflation in the early months of 2003. The central bank has been dealing with those changes, he said.

"But so far, we do not think we should make very serious monetary policy changes," he said, adding that the authorities intended to make only minor and necessary adjustments rather than making hasty policy changes.

Zhou made the remarks at a forum held Saturday in Beijing on China's economic growth and its impact.

He was echoed on Saturday by Wu Xiaoling, deputy governor of the bank, at a forum sponsored by the Development Research Center under the State Council. Wu said that instead of focusing on interest rate levels, the central bank would promote the liberalization of the interest rate regime to improve the transmission mechanism for monetary policy.

"In this round of macroeconomic management actions, the central bank is not focusing its attention on adjusting the level of interest rates," she said.

Interest rates on local currency deposits are already considerably higher than those on dollar deposits in the Chinese and international markets, and any improper move in this area may quicken the inflow of foreign currencies, she said.

The massive inflow of dollars in recent months, partly as a result of expectations that the local currency, or renminbi, will appreciate soon, is seen as a major force driving China's rapid monetary growth. The central bank has had to purchase excess dollars with local currency.

"It is too early to change the overall policy direction," Zhou said, adding that the central bank will closely watch the trend.

China's GDP grew 9.7 percent year-on-year in the first quarter, in line with that seen in 2003, when GDP growth was 9.1 percent for the year and 9.9 percent in the fourth quarter.

The growth has been largely driven by fixed investment, which jumped 43 percent in the first quarter to 879.9 billion yuan (US$106 billion).

The consumer price index, a key barometer for inflation, reversed months of negative annualized growth last year to hit 3.2 percent in January of this year, the fastest pace in the past few years. It came in at 2.8 percent for the first quarter.

The uptrend is likely to continue in the second quarter of the year, Wu said, and once it rises above the lending rate, which means negative borrowing costs, businesses will build up their inventories, pushing prices up further.

The one-year lending rate at Chinese banks currently stands at 5.3 percent.

"If the consumer price index rises further to bring the real interest rate on loans into negative territory, the central bank will not turn a blind eye," Wu said.

But economists generally hold that instead of an overall overheating, the Chinese economy has only seen excessive expansion in certain sectors, including real estate and automobile manufacturing.

Fan Gang, director of the National Institute of Economic Research, also said he was quite optimistic about China's soft-landing stance.

"I don't think the current growth rate is too far from being sustainable," he said.

Hopefully the macro policy will take effect in the second half of the year, Fan said. That would bring annual economic growth to about 9 percent and between 8 and 9 percent next year, which is suitable for China.

While keeping a close eye on further developments in prices and monetary growth, Wu reiterated the central bank will use various monetary policy tools to achieve its policy goals this year.

The growth of broad money supply, the central bank's main target, stood at 19.1 percent last month, far outstripping the full-year goal of 17.0 percent.

The central bank raised reserve requirements by 1 percentage point to 7 percent in September last year, a move aimed at restricting banks' lending capacity.

Loan growth subsided slightly in the following months, but recovered again in the first two months of 2004, with broad money M2, which covers cash in circulation and all deposits, rising by an annualized 19.8 percent, 1.3 percentage points faster than one year earlier.

The central bank stepped up open market operations in the first quarter of this year, sterilizing all the liquidity generated by its huge purchases of dollars during the period, Wu said.

The central bank also raised reserve requirements for some commercial banks by half a percentage point late last month.

Before the move takes effect, expected on the 25th of this month, the bank announced an across-the-board increase in reserve requirements on April 11, also by half a percentage point, for all financial institutions except credit cooperatives. The two increases take effect on the same day.

(China Daily April 19, 2004)

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