The People’s Bank of China headquarters stand in Beijing, China. (Photographer: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg)

China to Unleash $108 Billion in Reserve Cut for Some Banks

(Bloomberg) -- China’s central bank will cut the amount of cash some lenders must hold as reserves, unlocking about 700 billion yuan ($108 billion) of liquidity, as it seeks to control leverage and support smaller companies.

The required reserve ratio for some banks will drop by 0.5 percentage point, effective July 5, the People’s Bank of China said on its website. That’s the day before the U.S. and China are scheduled to impose tariffs on each other.

Such a reduction had been widely expected, especially after China’s cabinet said on Wednesday that it would use monetary policy tools, including cutting reserve ratios for some banks, to boost credit supply to smaller companies. Sunday’s cut probably won’t be the last. Analysts expect the bank to further ease policy going forward to help cope with a slowing economy and offset the effects of a crackdown on shadow banking.

"While the PBOC reiterated its neutral stance, we think that the move is one step further toward more accommodative monetary policy, which is only fitting given softening growth and mounting trade tensions," Wei Yao, China economist at Societe Generale SA in Paris, wrote in a note. She expects further cuts in the reserve rate ratios, lower rates on liquidity instruments and a lower interest rate corridor in the second half of the year.

The yuan continued to slide on Monday. The benchmark Shanghai stock index is on the brink of a bear market after tumbling almost 20 percent from its recent high, and closed Monday down 1.1 percent.

Supporting SMEs

The aim is to support small and micro enterprises, and to further promote the debt-to-equity swap program, according to the central bank. The cut will apply to major state-run commercial banks, joint-stock commercial lenders, postal banks, city commercial lenders, rural banks and foreign banks.

The PBOC designed the cut to do two different things, according to the statement. The 500 billion yuan unlocked for the nation’s five biggest state-run banks and 12 joint-stock commercial lenders will be channeled to debt-to-equity swaps, which can reduce companies’ debt burdens and help cleaning up banks’ balance sheets. The 200 billion yuan freed for smaller lenders such as the postal bank and city commercial lenders will be used to support funding for smaller businesses.

The PBOC announced more details on how it will boost credit for small companies on Monday. It will add another 150 billion yuan in its targeted relending quota, a scheme in which banks can obtain relatively cheap funding from the PBOC to loan out to small companies and rural businesses. The interest rate for SME relending loans will be lowered by 0.5 percentage point, the central bank said in a statement.

By requesting banks use the liquidity to support-debt-to-equity swaps, the PBOC has broadened the scope of its targeted RRR reductions. While two previous cuts were aimed at helping smaller firms, the main beneficiaries of the debt-to-equity swaps will be larger companies in traditional industries like coal, iron and other metals, according to Wen Bin, a researcher at China Minsheng Banking Corp. in Beijing. Many of those are state-owned enterprises.

The swap program was introduced in 2016 to assist highly-leveraged companies by encouraging banks and private investors to replace their claims on loans with equity holdings. It’s seen little progress - 102 companies had signed up for swaps worth about 1.6 trillion yuan by the end of 2017, but only around 20 percent of those had been executed, according to China International Capital Corporation.

Targeted, precise change

The move will "help push forward the steady progress of structural deleveraging, and strengthen support to the weak links of small-and-micro businesses. It is a targeted and precise fine-tuning," the central bank said in a separate statement. "The PBOC will keep implementing prudent and neutral monetary policy, and create a favorable monetary and financial environment for high-quality development and supply-side reform."

The funds unlocked from the reserve ratio cut shouldn’t be used to support so-called zombie companies, the PBOC said.

What our economist says: 
The big takeaway is that policy is now firmly tilted towards growth, Bloomberg Economics’ Tom Orlik wrote in a note. "China’s policy makers are moving pre-emptively and revealing very limited tolerance for risks to growth."

Risk containment

The central bank’s support of debt-to-equity "may reflect its intent to contain credit risk and prevent a significant impact on domestic business confidence," Morgan Stanley economists led by China Chief Economist Robin Xing wrote in a note. The next steps could include open market cash injections and further RRR cuts, Xing wrote.

The central bank is adjusting monetary policy at a time when China’s economy is showing signs of slowing amid an ongoing campaign to clean up the financial sector and worsening trade tensions with the U.S. The change will also help ease a funding squeeze for lenders, which have to repay money borrowed from the central bank’s medium-term lending facility, and put aside cash for both the July tax season and upcoming quarterly regulatory checks.

One-month interbank borrowing costs, or Shibor, climbed to the highest level since early April last week, as liquidity tightens before the regulatory and tax season.

China to Unleash $108 Billion in Reserve Cut for Some Banks

Beats expectations

“The size of the liquidity being unleashed has beat expectations and it’s larger than the previous two cuts this year”, said Ming Ming, head of fixed-income research at Citic Securities Co. in Beijing. “It’s almost a universal cut as it covers almost all lenders.”

The move will ease liquidity shortages currently seen in the implementation of debt-to-equity programs, and it shows that policy makers still don’t want to send a signal of across-the-board easing, Ming said. "The central bank may have predicted rising debt risks in the near future, so it decided to set up such an arrangement," he said.

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