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China’s Financial Reform: ‘Making Progress While Maintaining Stability’

There were no great expectations of China’s fourth quinquennial national financial work conference that has just ended in Beijing. And it seems to have met them.

These two-day meetings of top political leaders and policymakers set broad policy objectives for the coming five years. In the past they have provided a blueprint for significant financial-system reform. But with a leadership transition already underway, the start of a new five-year plan and growing nervousness among policymakers and political leaders alike about the volatile outlook for the global economy and the potential implications for China’s growth, there is no great appetite for much beyond keeping a steady ship.

“Risk-aversion should be the lifeline of our financial work,” said Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He also said that there would be greater supervision of the banks, which, he said, needed to improve their governance and risk management.

Risk control and prudent macroeconomic management were the order of the day, as they were at last month’s annual economic work meeting. “Making progress while maintaining stability,” is the mantra. The emphasis is currently on the stability.

More detail about the financial work meeting will likely drip out over the coming days. The post-meeting statement dealt in generalities, but two leading topics of discussion were the currency and interest rates. Moves towards more market oriented interest rate mechanisms are necessary if China is to become more efficient at capital allocation, as it needs to be as its economy develops from its invest and export model of the past three decades. But steps have been tentative in the face of some vested interests who have thrived on cheap and ready bank loans. We expect the equally tentative steps to develop bond markets to be given priority over interest rate liberalization, with provincial and local governments being given more scope to sell bonds to firm up their finances. However, when it comes to developing a corporate bond market, don’t underestimate the political task in getting the big state owned enterprises to be supportive of a new source of credit that will be more demanding of their performance.

The internationalization of the yuan is also likely to continue at a measured pace, while the exchange rate against the dollar won’t be allowed to drift much higher. Policymakers feel that with the trade surplus shrinking the currency is at the right sort of level. It has risen by a third since the peg with the U.S. dollar was first broken seven years ago. Wen said China “will steadily proceed with efforts to make the renminbi convertible under capital account to improve its management of the foreign-exchange reserves”–though that is pretty much boilerplate.

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on China Bystander.

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