China’s central bank cut its official interest rates for the first time in two years Friday, in a surprise move that sent international stock and commodity markets sharply higher.
The action by the People’s Bank of China, which comes in response to a string of disappointing economic data and increasing signs of tension in local money markets, is the authorities’ strongest show of support in months.
The economy is currently growing at its slowest rate since 2009, and while Beijing has tried to appear relaxed about that, surveys are now showing output stagnating and jobs being shed across the key manufacturing sector.
The PBoC’s action also adds to the trend of central banks across the world easing monetary policy to fight off a growing threat of deflation–a trend that goes in the opposite direction to the U.S., where the Federal Reserve is preparing to tighten policy as the economic recovery gains traction after six years of emergency measures.
The PBoC cut its one-year deposit rate by 0.25 percentage points to 2.75% and the one-year lending rate by 0.40 percentage points to 5.6%.
It timed its announcement to come after the close of financial markets in China, but European stock markets surged on the news, as did prices for commodities such as crude oil. The benchmark contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose by $1.50 a barrel, or 2.5%, to its highest level in two weeks, while in Europe, the German DAX index soared 2% and the U.K.’s FTSE 100 rose 1.0%.
European markets were also buoyed by a strongly-worded speech by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi promising aggressive action to ensure the Eurozone doesn’t fall into deflation.
Official interest rates don’t have quite the same function in China’s economy as they do in western ones, due to their interplay with other tools, such as caps on deposit rates and statutory reserve requirements. And the market for money is in any case effectively sealed off from the rest of the world by China’s capital controls. As such, they may not have the same kind of stimulating effect that a similar move by, for example, the Federal Reserve (in the days before the 2008 crisis).
Interestingly, the PBoC also relaxed its control of the amount that banks can offer for deposits. They can now offer 1.2 times the benchmark rate, rather than 1.1 times. These range from 0.35% to 4% depending on maturity. The PBoC enforces a strict cap of 75% on loan-to-deposit ratios in the banking system.
Taken together, the measures look designed to support liquidity into a banking system that is facing challenges on a number of fronts. The sector is seeing a sharp rise in bad loans, especially to real estate developers and construction companies, which is hitting revenue. In addition, banks are also looking to raise capital themselves and amass cash to service clients’ demands for other stock offerings that are due next week in China.
Earlier Friday, the PBoC had felt the need to issue a statement via its account on the Chinese Twitter-equivalent Weibo reassuring market participants that liquidity was “ample”. Benchmark one-week interbank rates had risen by an alarming 0.2o percentage point to 3.48% earlier, according to the Wall Street Journal.