China fights inflation with Christmas rate rise
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's central bank raised interest rates on Saturday for the second time in just over two months as it stepped up its battle to rein in stubbornly high inflation.
The People's Bank of China said it will raise the benchmark lending rate by 25 basis points to 5.81 percent and lift the benchmark deposit rate by 25 basis points to 2.75 percent.
The central bank said in a statement on its website (www.pbc.gov.cn) that the latest rate rise would take effect on Sunday.
The move came after Beijing said earlier in December it was switching to a "prudent" monetary policy, from its earlier "moderately loose" stance.
Analysts said the change of wording, along with a recent pledge by top leaders to make inflation fighting a top priority for 2011, could pave the way for more interest rate increases and lending controls.
"This rate hike demonstrates Chinese authorities' determination to keep inflation under control up front, or front-loaded tightening," said Qing Wang, chief China economist at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong.
"Compared to rate hikes in the beginning of next year, a rate hike before year-end will have a more tightening impact, as the interest rates on the medium- and long-term loans and deposits are reset at the beginning of each year according to the base rates."
The central bank said on Friday it will deploy a range of policy tools to head off inflationary pressures and asset bubbles.
To tame price pressures, China raised interest rates on Oct 19 for the first time in nearly three years. The consensus of analysts polled by Reuters this month was for three rate rises of 25 basis points each by the end of next year.
Along with playing a key role in the fight against inflation, policy tightening also signals the government's confidence that the world's second-largest economy is on solid ground, even as the U.S. and European recoveries remain fragile.
While almost all investors and analysts thought more policy tightening was coming, there was uncertainty about whether the central bank would raise rates before the end of the year.
The central bank opted to raise banks' reserve requirements on Nov 19 ahead of data which showed inflation hit a 28-month high of 5.1 percent.
"We expected a rate hike by the end of the year, though Christmas Day is something of a surprise -- a rate hike is not normally on the wish-list for Santa Claus, but in China's case this is a prudent move," said Brian Jackson, economist with Royal Bank of Canada in Hong Kong.
"We think it is increasingly clear that using quantitative measures, such as reserve ratios, to rein in liquidity and credit has not been enough, and that adjusting the price of credit -- that is, interest rates -- is needed to get price pressures under control."
Chinese stock markets have shed nearly 10 percent since mid-November on concerns the government would ratchet up its monetary policy tightening in face of rising inflation.
China has also officially increased banks' required reserve requirements six times this year and restricted lending by them.
In addition, Beijing has taken a slew of steps to cool the property sector, trying to ward off a potential asset bubble.