China may cut rates soon, says economist who called 2014 move

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HONG KONG (Feb 1): The rapid deterioration in China’s economic data could spur the central bank to cut its benchmark interest rate as soon as Feb 1, according to Barclays Plc economists.

“Existing measures are not sufficient to lower the financing costs of the real economy, in a down-cycle with rising credit risk and falling producer-price inflation,” the analysts led by Jian Chang wrote in a note. “Hence, lowering the risk-free rate is unavoidable, in our view,” she wrote.

It’s a notable call: Chang was the only economist in Bloomberg surveys to correctly predict rate cuts that policy makers enacted in late 2014.

History shows that when PMI surveys fall below the 50 mark, exports contract and producer-price inflation slows sharply, the PBOC tends to act, according to Barclays research. All three of those conditions have been met in recent weeks.

The central bank isn’t in a hurry to cut the one-year lending and deposit rates, according to Citibank economists. However, in a note from Wednesday, they said they expect a cut in the Standing Lending Facility rate, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Fed’s Discount Window, from as early as February.

Manufacturing purchasing-managers index surveys released on Thursday and Friday are the latest evidence of a continuing downtrend, which policy makers are struggling to arrest with months of targeted stimulus measures. The central bank has added liquidity through five cuts to the reserve-requirement ratio since early 2018, but hasn’t shifted the more powerful one-year lending rate since 2015.

Two Cuts Seen

Barclays forecasts the PBOC will cut benchmark rates twice, by 25 basis points each in the first and second quarters. However, the majority of economists surveyed by Bloomberg see the 1-year lending rate unchanged through the end of the first quarter, and most see no change by the end of 2019.

“While policy makers may be willing to guide borrowing costs lower, they won’t cut benchmark interest rates to reach that goal unless the situation is really panicky,” said Ding Shuang, chief economist at Standard Chartered Ltd for Greater China & North Asia. “It’s apparently not panic stations now.”

Chang argues that with a more “patient” stance being adopted by the US Federal Reserve this week, and the yuan’s robust performance in January, previous impediments to cutting borrowing costs more broadly in China have been removed. The onshore yuan climbed almost 2.7% against the dollar last month, one of the strongest performers in Asia.

“The dovish tone and proactive stance exhibited by the PBOC in January underscore significant downward pressure on growth from both weak domestic demand and a rapid deterioration in the external environment,” Chang wrote.