Making The Half Empty Glass of Financial Reform Go Away

THAT CHINA’S FINANCIAL system is “unbalanced, repressed, costly to maintain and potentially unstable” will not brook many arguments among policymakers in Beijing. It is, after all, why they are deep into an extensive programme of financial reforms, reforms that are seen as central to the long-term rebalancing of the economy.

It is also why “a weakly regulated shadow banking system” and a tendency of “wasteful investment and over-indebtedness” that is the consequence of a “traditional investment-driven growth model shaped by heavy state intervention” are also being tackled as policy priorities.

However, it is one thing for officials to know that and quite another to have it told to them publicly by the World Bank.

The phrases quoted above were all contained in a section of the Bank’s latest China Economic Update, published mid-week, which called for a quickening of financial-sector reform. The entire section has now been removed from the update, because, the Bank says, “it had not gone through the World Bank’s usual internal review and clearance procedures.”

Whatever, this Bystander is tempted to say. Any red faces at the Bank are probably due as much to the tongue lashing that would have come from Beijing as from the embarrassment of having to redact a section of a report post-publication.

With share prices on the Shanghai exchange in meltdown and the signing ceremony earlier this week setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a putative rival to the Bank’s regional clone, the Asian Development Bank, and longer term to the Bretton Woods’ multilateral institutions as a whole, there could be some understandable sensitivity on both sides. Also, China readily takes public offense at any perceived criticism by any institution seen to be in the pockets of the U.S. and the EU — and the World Bank has previous in this regard.

What, to our mind, lies behind this particular spat is that when the International Monetary Fund comes to consider in October whether to endorse the renminbi as an official reserve currency by including it alongside the dollar, sterling, euro and yen in the basket of currencies that comprise its Special Drawing Rights, progress on China’s financial reform — and particularly whether renminbi interest rates are market-based — will be a key criterion.

The IMF reviews the components of its SDRs every five years. It would be an unwelcoming rebuff for China, which is being ever more assertive in claiming its place at international top tables, if it were made to wait until 2020 for inclusion.

As recently as March, Prime Minister Li Keqiang told Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, that China intended to speed up the financial sector reforms needed to meet the stringent requirements of stability and liquidity demanded of a reserve currency.  With IMF staff preparing their internal assessments for the 2015 SDR review around now, this is not a time when Beijing will brook any public plain-speaking about the pace of financial reform.

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