(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s debatable whether the Federal Reserve has sense, vision or “guts.” But one thing is certain: The U.S. central bank has become a weakling. The People’s Bank of China, on the other hand, is loaded with technocrats on steroids.
The Fed’s prestige took a hit this week. Its most powerful regional reserve bank somehow botched a critical market rescue operation – its first overnight repurchase agreement operation in a decade. Monitoring supply and demand in this key funding market should be routine; yet, embarrassingly, the Fed’s main rate shot above its targeted range, just when central-bank officials were convening for their monetary-policy meeting. The New York Fed will follow up its $75 billion emergency-liquidity injection with another equally sized chunk on Thursday.
By contrast, open-market operations have become commonplace for China’s central bank, which actively manages liquidity to its liking. That’s less a signal of the PBOC’s draconian grip on the market and more indicative of its increasingly sophisticated efforts to ensure things run smoothly. Since a funding crunch in January 2016, the PBOC has given itself the flexibility to conduct such operations on a daily basis, up from twice a week. There are 49 primary dealers, mostly banks, that carry out the central bank’s bidding.
These procedures help the PBOC manage foreseeable yuan shortages in the money market. For example, on Jan. 16, the central bank injected a net 560 billion yuan ($79 billion), the highest on record, into the interbank system via reverse repos to meet consumers’ demand for yuan ahead of the Lunar New Year, when cash gifts are common.
The PBOC also isn’t shy about experimenting. Of course, there are the traditional tools: repurchase agreements and reverse repos, which, respectively, drain and inject short-term liquidity into the banks. Yet clever policymakers keep inventing new toys. Last December, the PBOC launched targeted medium-term lending facilities to encourage banks to lend to small businesses. In January, officials introduced central bank bill swaps to help lenders replenish capital by issuing perpetual bonds.
The PBOC also uses open-market operations to manage the yield curve, which in China remains relatively steep compared with other global markets. Since the central bank has been cutting reserve ratios its commercial banks are required to hold – to encourage more lending to businesses – it has simultaneously been retiring medium-term lending facilities, effectively dialing up one knob and dialing down another. This ensures that rates in certain parts of the curve don’t drop too low.
Wall Street analysts have been calling for the PBOC to cut its benchmark one-year lending rate since early 2019. So far, the central bank has resisted. That’s all for good reason, as I’ve written. The PBOC has realized that a good chunk of blanket easing goes into the real-estate market, which makes China’s housing unaffordable to the middle class and risks stoking social unrest.
One can scoff at more obscure open-market operations, saying they’re insufficient to avert an economic recession. But here’s the thing: If a central bank is getting a good read on the economy by engaging consistently with traders, it can send liquidity to pockets of the economy most in need. Rate cuts then become a last resort. That’s a problem the Fed can only dream of having.
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Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets. She previously wrote on markets for Barron's, following a career as an investment banker, and is a CFA charterholder.
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