Garden in China

China’s Transparency Problem

For China, coordinating short-term policies aimed at stabilizing markets with long-term changes to the industrial structure has been no easy feat. One thing is clear: effective communication with market participants and real-economy players is crucial to market credibility and stability.

HONG KONG – The Chinese economy has caught a surprisingly severe cold this winter – a cold so bad that almost all global markets are sneezing. During the first two weeks of 2016, the Shanghai Composite Index fell 18%. On January 15, the index closed at 2,901 – very close to the trough of last summer’s stock-market crash. Foreign analysts almost uniformly predict another market crash or even a hard landing. With oil prices dipping below $28 per barrel, the specter of a global economic pandemic has appeared.

China’s New Year financial-market shock has been attributed to several causes, primarily related to policy transparency and clarity. One was the reversal of China’s attempt to install a stock-market “circuit breaker,” which, far from tempering volatility, spurred a new wave of selloffs. The other – arguably more serious – problem was market confusion about the direction of the renminbi exchange rate, following a gradual but constant ten-day depreciation against the US dollar that fueled capital outflows, until the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) intervened.

According to the PBOC, the confusion arose from a technical change in the process of setting the renminbi exchange rate, with the common reference rate against the US dollar replaced by a rate established on the basis of an undisclosed basket of key international currencies. This reform may be intended to boost the renminbi’s stability; but it is not good for markets, which prefer stability against the dollar to the uncertainty of a managed float.