China Starts Slowly in 2010 Race Against Inflation

China's central planners won last year's race, rushing to shore up growth before collapsing exports dragged down the economy. They have adopted less urgency in their approach to this year's race: taming inflation before it takes off on the back of super-charged growth.
Reuters 1/5/2010 5:32:01 PM

Beijing has started to trim back ultra-loose policies adopted at the height of the global financial crisis in late 2008. But these have been tentative steps, marginally in the direction of tightening, and pressure is building for more decisive action.

A clear sign of potential trouble came in the first data points of the new year. Surging factory orders and output pushed both of China's purchasing manager indexes (PMIs) to fresh highs, but the surveys also revealed very strong rises in prices.

Policymakers and investors who ignore the warnings about inflation would be doing so at their own peril. After all, a jump in Chinese PMIs in early 2009 was one of the best leading indicators of the country's ultimately stunning recovery.

Consumer prices in November rose 0.6 percent from a year earlier after falling for most of 2009.

Inflation it set to rise in the coming months, partly due to the base effect of low prices a year earlier, but also because money supply grew at a record pace of roughly 30 percent last year.

The question is whether inflation will start to moderate around the middle of 2010 -- the baseline forecast of many analysts -- or turn into more of a headache.

It is by no means too late for Beijing to tamp down on the price pressures. Much will rest on how it applies bank lending controls -- a far more important tool than interest rates in Chinese monetary policy.

Record new bank credit in 2009 of nearly 10 trillion yuan ($1.5 trillion) was heavily concentrated in the first half. This is the usual lending pattern in China and one that the government is determined to break, insisting in recent pronouncements that banks lend more evenly throughout this year.

Loans of more than 1 trillion yuan a month could fuel steep price rises and signal "drastic tightening" down the road, Yu said. But if officials succeed in controlling lending, the economy will be on its way to achieving high growth and low inflation, he said.

Chinese leaders from Premier Wen Jiabao to central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan have pledged in recent weeks that they will maintain appropriately loose monetary policy while also "enhancing flexibility." Observers have interpreted this as an indication of their intention to gradually step up tightening.

Indeed, over the past month, Beijing has scaled back a tax exemption on property sales, increased a tax on auto purchases, vowed to crack down on speculation in the sizzling housing market and given banks stricter lending guidelines.

Few analysts think the People's Bank of China will raise banks' reserve requirements or interest rates until headline inflation really catches the public's attention, perhaps sometime late in the second quarter.

Currency appreciation would, in normal circumstances, help serve tightening goals. But Beijing seems almost paralyzed by fears that a strengthening yuan would attract currency speculators, the hot money inflows revving up inflation.

China Starts Slowly in 2010 Race Against Inflation