Bubble Risks Test China’s Commitment to No Sharp Turn in Policy

A woman and a child walk past the People's Bank of China building in Beijing. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Bubble Risks Test China’s Commitment to No Sharp Turn in Policy

Despite Beijing’s best efforts, asset bubbles are forming in China.

Home prices are soaring, prompting officials to revive the idea of a national property tax. A surge in raw material prices spurred pledges to increase domestic supply, toughen market oversight, and crack down on speculation and hoarding.

The rapid gains are challenging the central bank’s ability to restrain inflation without hiking borrowing costs or making a sharp turn in monetary policy -- something the People’s Bank of China has said it will avoid. The risk is the government’s attempts to curb price increases won’t be enough, forcing the central bank’s hand at a vulnerable time for domestic consumption.

That would be a shock to the nation’s financial markets, which are pricing in a relatively benign scenario. The 10-year government bond yield has fallen to the lowest level in eight months, while the stock benchmark CSI 300 Index is the least volatile since January. The calm contrasts with the rest of the world, where investors are becoming increasingly obsessed with how central banks may react to the threat of an overheating global economy.

Bubble Risks Test China’s Commitment to No Sharp Turn in Policy

“How to mitigate the boom in property and commodities without tightening macro policy -- it’s a real challenge for the Chinese government,” said Zhou Hao, an economist at Commerzbank AG in Singapore.

More than 15 months after the pandemic first forced China to cut rates and inject trillions of yuan into the financial system, policy makers in Beijing are -- like many others across the world -- dealing with the aftermath. As the global economic recovery accelerates, some are being forced to act because of inflation: Brazil in March became the first Group of 20 nation to lift borrowing costs, with Turkey and Russia following suit. Even Iceland hiked a short-term rate in May.

Others, like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, have insisted spikes in prices are only temporary. The PBOC also downplayed inflation worries in its first-quarter monetary report, published shortly after data showed factory prices surged 6.8% in April -- the fastest pace since 2017.

What Bloomberg Economists Say...

“It will be a challenge for China to contain rising producer prices because few commodities are priced within the country. There’s not much China can do, and even tightening monetary policy will not be able to change the situation,” said David Qu, China economist at Bloomberg Economics.

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While the rapid increase in commodity prices moderated in recent days, a continuation of gains could pressure companies to pass on rising costs to consumers, who are already spending less than expected. Analysts at Huachuang Securities Co. said in a May 9 report that prices of consumer goods, like home appliances and furniture, as well as electric vehicles and food, are rising. Still, there’s little evidence of demand-driven pressures, with core inflation, which strips out volatile food and energy costs, fairly subdued.

The threat of inflation -- coupled with a fragile economy -- tends to be bad news for stocks because of how it erodes corporate profits, and for bonds it reduces the value of future cash flows. Accelerating prices walloped China’s bond market in 2019, and contributed to a steep selloff in stocks in early 2016.

In a sign of how seriously that threat is being taken, China’s cabinet said Wednesday more effort needs to be taken to tackle rising commodity prices. A PBOC official said China should allow the yuan to appreciate to offset the impact of rising import prices, according to an article published Friday. The currency is trading near an almost three-year high against the dollar.

Imported inflation is a headache for China’s leaders already dealing with risks caused by a surge in capital inflows. In recent years Beijing opened investment channels to allow more funds into its financial system. The goal was to use foreign institutions’ heft to anchor its markets and stabilize its currency, but the record liquidity unleashed by global central banks in the wake of the pandemic is now pressuring prices in China.

That’s prompted some strong language from senior officials. Top securities regulator Yi Huiman said in March large flows of “hot money” into China must be strictly controlled. The same month, banking regulator Guo Shuqing said he was “very worried” that asset bubbles in overseas markets would burst soon, posing a risk to the global economy.

Deciding whether recent spikes in prices are temporary or a permanent shift toward sustained inflation is something Chinese policy makers have to grapple with. For now, Beijing’s current approach of jawboning, boosting supply and penalizing speculation appears to be targeted at the former.

“It’s still too early to tell if China can contain the surge in producer prices, and if it can’t, whether that will have large-scale impact on consumer prices,” said Raymond Yeung, chief economist for Greater China at Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. “This inflation is largely imported -- it’s not something that can be solved by the PBOC.”

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