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China unexpectedly keeps LPR lending benchmark unchanged, but outlook for rates down

China unexpectedly keeps LPR lending benchmark unchanged, but outlook for rates down
FILE PHOTO: A Chinese national flag flutters outside the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, in Beijing, China April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic/File Photo -
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SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China on Monday unexpectedly kept unchanged its new benchmark lending rate, suggesting Beijing is keen to avoid overly loosening monetary policy for fear it may push up already-high debt levels across the economy.

The one-year Loan Prime Rate (LPR) remained at 4.20%, steady from the previous monthly fixing. The five-year LPR was fixed at 4.85%, unchanged from September.

A Reuters poll last week had forecast the rate would be cut again following reductions in August and last month.

Frances Cheung, head of Asia macro strategy at Westpac in Singapore, said Monday’s decision does not point to an end to the downward adjustment in the LPR.

“That said, the outcome is likely to reinforce the somewhat risk-on sentiment today,” Cheung said.

“Looking ahead, we still see each monthly LPR re-set as providing an opportunity for a baby-step reduction.”

Investors in China’s financial markets took the rate decision in stride. Benchmark 10-year treasury futures for December delivery, the most-traded contract, were barely moved after the data release.

A separate Reuters poll of 83 analysts showed that the central bank is expected to slash the one-year LPR to 4.00% by the end of 2019, down by 20 basis point from its current level.

The decision to keep the LPR steady came just days after China reported its third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth cooling to near 30-year low.

Economists and China observers say a recent bath of weak data showing a further loss of momentum in the world’s second-biggest economy underlined the need for further monetary policy support.

A bruising 15-month long Sino-U.S. trade dispute was also one of the key factors fueling the easing expectations. U.S. President Donald Trump has outlined the first phase of a deal to end a trade war and suspended a threatened tariff hike, though officials on both sides said much more work needed to be done.

All the same, some policy insiders have said the room for the government to step up stimulus measures could be limited by its worries about rising debt risks and possible property bubbles.

Data earlier on Monday showed new home prices in China grew at a steady pace in September, with fewer cities reporting price gains, giving the authorities some breathing room as they refrain from over-stimulating the property sector.

Beijing has leaned more heavily on fiscal stimulus to address the current downturn, announcing trillions of yuan in tax cuts and special local government bonds to finance infrastructure projects.

Monday’s fixing was the third since the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) unveiled the new lending benchmark, which is set by 18 banks.

The new LPR is linked to the rate on PBOC’s medium-term lending facility (MLF), which is determined by broader financial system demand for central bank liquidity. The one-year MLF rate, last cut in February 2016, now stands at 3.3%.

The PBOC unexpectedly injected 200 billion yuan ($28.29 billion) through MLF loans last week while keeping the lending rates unchanged.

(Reporting by Winni Zhou and Andrew Galbraith; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

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