China’s Interest-Rate Challenge

China’s successful transformation from a middle-income country to a modern, high-income country will depend largely on the reforms that the government undertakes over the next decade. But, because the most pressing reform – interest-rate liberalization – carries both risks and rewards, officials should be prudent in their approach.

NEW YORK – China’s successful transformation from a middle-income country to a modern, high-income country will depend largely on the reforms that the government undertakes over the next decade. Financial reforms should top the agenda, beginning with interest-rate liberalization. But liberalizing interest rates carries both risks and rewards, and will create both winners and losers, so policymakers must be prudent in their approach.

In 2012, the People’s Bank of China allowed commercial banks to float interest rates on deposits upward by 10% from the benchmark, and on bank loans downward by 20%. So, if the PBOC sets the interest rate on one-year deposits at 3%, commercial banks can offer depositors a rate as high as 3.3%. Many analysts viewed this policy, which introduced a small degree of previously non-existent competition among commercial banks, as a sign that China would soon liberalize interest rates further.

But any further move toward interest-rate liberalization must account for all potential costs and benefits. Chinese policymakers should begin with a careful examination of the effects of current financial repression (the practice of keeping interest rates below the market equilibrium level).

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