BEIJING China's banks disbursed the most loans in any month in four years in January, a surge that suggests the world's second-biggest economy may not be cooling as much as some fear.
Chinese banks lent 1.32 trillion yuan ($217.6 billion) worth of new yuan loans in January, beating a 1.1 trillion yuan forecast and nearly three times December's level, the People's Bank of China said in a statement on Saturday on its website.
It is usual for loans to spike in January when banks try to lend as much as they can to grab market share, but last month's surge was still the largest since January 2010.
Saturday's figures may assuage those who worry about China's hazy economic outlook following recent data that showed conflicting trends. Distortions to the data as a result of January's Lunar New Year holiday is part of the problem, and some analysts believe it won't be till April before they get finally get some clarity on what is happening.
Some economists cautioned against reading too much into the latest figures.
"The bigger picture is that bank loan growth has been effectively flat since the middle of 2013," Capital Economics said in a note, adding that broader credit growth is at its lowest in nearly one and a half years. "We think that tight monetary conditions are probably here to stay."
Total social financing, a broad measure of liquidity and credit in the economy, was 2.58 trillion yuan in January, double the previous month's figure due to the surge in bank loans.
Compared to a year ago, Capital Economics said growth in total social financing had eased to 17.4 percent in January, the lowest in about a year-and-a-half and down from December's 17.8 percent.
The broad M2 money supply was up 13.2 percent last month from a year earlier, in line with a Reuters poll forecast of a 13.2 percent rise.
Outstanding yuan loans were up 14.3 percent from a year earlier versus forecasts for growth of 13.9 percent.
Bank lending is a centerpiece in China's monetary policy as banks lend at the government's behest, and are told how much to lend and when to lend.
January's lending surge aside, China's central bank has consistently signaled in recent months that it wants to temper credit growth to slow a rapid rise in debt levels across the economy.
It has focused in particular on keeping short-term interest rates elevated to force banks to stop lending to speculators or high-risk borrowers.
Analysts polled by Reuters in January said they expect China's economy to grow 7.4 percent this year, an enviable performance for a major economy, but still the worst for China in 14 years. The economy grew 7.7 percent last year.
A series of surveys that showed Chinese factories and service firms suffered a marked fall in business in January and had heightened worries about an unexpectedly sharp economic cooling. But the disappointing trend was countered this week by a surprisingly strong trade report that showed import growth at a six-month high, a performance that baffled some analysts.
($1 = 6.0668 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Matt Driskill)