Is the PBOC ready for prime time?

A recent misstep and controversial stance on disseminating information by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) is causing Bloomberg to wonder aloud if China’s central bank is ready for prime time.

Asia Unhedged thinks the PBOC is prepared for its role on the world stage. However, the arbiter of Chinese monetary policy may want to spend a bit of time cleaning up its act.

As China overtakes the U.S. as the No. 1 economy and tries to establish the yuan as an international currency, the central bank, in its recent quarterly report, questioned the merits of transparency, saying too much openness could lead to “pressure from various sides.”

But global investors are finding the bank’s unpredictability a liability and not the actions of a top central bank.

Case in point: The May 10 leak of the latest interest rate cut by the PBOC. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, when no one was paying attention, that a statement of the impeding cut was leaked onto WeChat, a popular messaging app considered China’s version of WhatsApp. The official announcement about the rate cut didn’t go online until a few hours after.

This kind of snafu rarely happens in other nations. It isn’t China-bashing to argue that there needs to be checks and balances on how such information is released so that everyone in the market gets the news at the same time.

On the one hand, the central bank says it wants to be very opaque, on the other hand, information is being leaked out all over the place. That looks really bad, but more than that it hurts the central bank’s effectiveness.

Part of the problem is that the PBOC lacks the independence enjoyed by foreign peers. While the PBOC advises on policy and manages money market operations, it actually takes instruction from the State Council, the nation’s cabinet.

“Other powerful ministries from the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of Commerce will have influence on the process,” Zhang Bin, an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research agency that advises the government, told Bloomberg.

With multiple government bodies aware of market-sensitive information before it’s formally announced, this just seems like an invitation to make investments on inside information. It’s like a bunch of guys in a college class unable to keep their mouths shut on what’s on the test and it ends up WeChat. While China may understand that bureaucrats need to follow certain rules, personal relationships can sometimes take precedence and loose lips seem inevitable.

Some may say this is weird. Others may say the way the announcement is being handled is haphazard and arbitrary. But, this stuff moves markets and the world is now paying attention. So, let’s assume the bank knows what it’s doing and that uniform regulations regarding transparency and releasing of sensitive economic information will be not long in coming.



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