China holds lending benchmarks for 6th month, but more easing seen

SHANGHAI : China kept its benchmark lending rates unchanged for a sixth straight month in February, as expected, with the world’s second-largest economy showing more signs of recovery from a pandemic-induced slump.

A clutch of better-than-expected data recently suggests economic activity is rebounding as Beijing exited from its stringent zero-COVID strategy in December and shifted to a pro-growth policy stance.

The one-year loan prime rate (LPR) was kept at 3.65 per cent, while the five-year LPR was unchanged at 4.30 per cent.

“We expect the PBOC to stay accommodative in the first half of this year, but only through liquidity-related actions, not rate cuts,” analysts at Barclays said in a note.

“Unlike the U.S. and EU, China remains the outlier on monetary policy, with still benign inflation and recovering but still weak activity creating room for the PBOC to remain accommodative in the first half.”

In a poll of 27 market watchers, 21, or 78 per cent of all participants, predicted no change to either rate.

New bank loans in China jumped more than expected to a record 4.9 trillion yuan in January as the central bank looks to kick-start recovery while new home prices rose for the first time in a year, as Beijing stepped up support for the property sector that accounts for a quarter of the domestic economy.

Market participants also said the LPR decision was within expectations, as the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) ramped up medium-term liquidity injections, rolling over maturing policy loans last week while keeping the interest rate unchanged.

The medium-term lending facility (MLF) rate serves as a guide to the LPR and markets mostly use the medium-term rate as a precursor to any changes to the lending benchmarks.

In spite of recovering momentum, some analysts expect rates will ease after China’s annual parliamentary gathering in March, when the government announces key growth targets for the year.

“We think the PBOC may cut the MLF rate and banks will subsequently reduce the LPRs as early as March following the annual session of the National People’s Congress which is scheduled to begin on March 5,” said Tommy Wu, senior economist at Commerzbank.

“Macro policy stimulus will likely be announced during the annual session, and it will be a good timing for the PBOC to cut rates and signal that it stands ready to support the economic recovery.”

Tommy Xie, head of Greater China research at OCBC Bank, agreed rates would likely be cut in the coming months.

“Easing monetary policy is likely to work hand in hand with the expansionary fiscal policy in the face of weak domestic demand. A lower interest rate will help minimise the cost of the issuance of government bonds,” Xie said, adding that lower mortgage rate could also help defuse systemic risk.

The LPR, which banks normally charge their best clients, is set by 18 designated commercial banks who submit proposed rates to the central bank every month.

Most new and outstanding loans in China are based on the one-year LPR, while the five-year rate influences the pricing of mortgages. China last cut both rates in August to boost the economy.

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