【英语中国】中国存款利率太低是假象 China’s interest rates are too high, not too low

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2014-1-10 08:38

小艾摘要: The December spike in China’s interbank interest rates, following a similar episode in June, reinforces two widely shared perceptions. The first is that dealing with the current debt overhang will ex ...
China’s interest rates are too high, not too low
The December spike in China’s interbank interest rates, following a similar episode in June, reinforces two widely shared perceptions. The first is that dealing with the current debt overhang will exacerbate volatility; the second is that interest rates are too low. That financial reforms are needed, despite the risks, is beyond dispute. But whether interest rates — specifically deposit rates paid to savers — are actually too low, as many China-watchers have argued, is debatable.

The spikes in interbank rates stem in part from a bifurcated access to household savings deposits. The leading state commercial banks have a large deposit base to tap for lending; while many of the smaller private banks rely on the interbank market, a more costly and less reliable source of funds. The interbank market also serves a melange of bank and non-bank intermediaries engaged in “shadow banking” activities targeted to the private sector for higher, albeit riskier, returns.

Attempts by the central bank to moderate the debt build-up by tightening liquidity in the interbank market contributed to the rate spikes. But policy makers have also have a justifiable desire to encourage more support for the private sector by liberalising lending practices.

Higher borrowing rates can help to reduce leverage in the economy; but, at the same time, a cursory comparison of interest rates across countries suggests China’s deposit rates are not too low. In fact, its deposit rates of 3-4 per cent are much higher than those of most leading advanced economies, whose rates are about 0.2 to 0.5 per cent. They are also higher than those of most developing east Asian countries, especially after adjusting for inflation and exchange rate risks.

Some advocates of higher deposit rates dismiss market comparisons and turn to growth models used by economists, which suggest that when an economy is in “equilibrium” the real interest rate should be equal to the gross domestic product growth rate. But this concept is more appropriately applied to lending rather than savings rates, and is more relevant for mature economies with low but stable growth rates than developing economies playing catch-up. It also pertains to a “stationary” economy – one that is neither expanding nor contracting and is closed to external markets. Clearly, China does not fit these conditions.

Many argue, however, that the surge in interbank rates is indicative of the need for higher rates, and that abolishing the remaining ceiling on deposit rates would help. Indeed, simply removing the deposit rate ceiling would likely lead to near-term increases. Private banks facing a liquidity crunch are more inclined to bid up rates since they lack the size and sovereign guarantee advantages of leading state-owned banks in competing for deposits. But in a poorly regulated market, these lenders are also more likely to be involved in speculative activities with greater risks of going bust. So, given distorted financial markets and incentives, interest rate liberalisation does not necessarily lead to better results.

Similarly, those who argue for higher lending rates because of the waste associated with state-owned enterprises overestimate the efficiency benefits, since interest rates play less of a role in shaping long-term investment decisions in China. The bulk of the waste comes from state-owned enterprises making monopoly profits — not transferring their surpluses to the state — and responding to politically driven mandates. Addressing these distortions, along with revamping the governance of the state banks, deepening capital markets and establishing a better regulatory system, should be much higher in the sequence of reform priorities than fully liberalising deposit rates.

Hypothetically, what would be the level of interest rates if state and private banks competed on equal terms and China opened up its capital markets? If capital controls were eliminated, more creditworthy borrowers would begin borrowing abroad at lower rates than available domestically, buoyed in part by limited downside exchange risks. Interest rate arbitrage is already occurring as Chinese companies use their overseas affiliates to gain access to cheaper external funds. Similarly, foreign capital would be attracted to an even greater extent into China, enticed by the higher deposit rates. This would put pressure on both lending and savings interest rates to fall to levels in Europe and the US, and on the renminbi to appreciate.

Put another way, China is unusual in that its ratio of investment to GDP is exceptionally high but its saving ratio is even higher. The surplus in savings shows up as a trade surplus, which is then invested abroad by the central bank. According to the most basic economic principle, the equilibrium interest rate is that rate which equalises savings and investment. In the absence of institutional reforms, interest rates would have to fall to generate a decline in savings or an increase in investment until balance is achieved.

Either on the basis of cross-country comparisons or concepts of “equilibrium” interest rates, China’s deposit rates are too high rather than too low. The mistaken interpretation originates from the perception that the country’s looming property bubble is driven by low deposit rates when it is actually largely the result of capital controls and distorted equity and land markets. All this puts an even greater burden on strengthening governance and regulatory systems as the prerequisites for financial reforms.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and a former World Bank director for China

继去年6月中国银行间利率飙升之后,12月又发生了类似情形,这使人们对两个广泛持有的观点更加深信不疑。一个观点是:处置目前的债务负担将加剧市场波动;另外一个观点是:中国利率水平过低。毋庸置疑的是,中国必须进行金融改革,尽管存在风险。但利率、尤其是存款利率是否真的像许多中国观察人士认为的那样处于过低水平,则是值得商榷的。

银行间利率飙升的部分原因,在于不同类型的银行在利用家庭存款方面存在落差。大型国有商业银行能够利用巨大的存款基础,从其获得放贷资金;而许多中小型民营银行则依赖银行间市场,利用这个资金渠道的成本更高,也更不可靠。银行间市场还是一个银行与非银行中介机构开展“影子银行”业务的场所——此类业务面向私人部门,以博取更高的回报率,当然风险也更高。

中国央行试图收紧银行间市场流动性,以放缓债务积累速度,这是利率飙升的原因之一。但政策制定者还有一个合情合理的愿望,那就是为放贷业务“松绑”,使民营部门得到更多支持。

提高借款利率可能有助于降低经济体中的杠杆水平;但与此同时,粗略比较各国利率可以看出,中国的存款利率并不太低。事实上,中国3%至4%的存款利率比多数大型发达经济体高很多,后者仅为0.2%至0.5%。中国的存款利率也高于多数东亚发展中国家,尤其是在经过通胀和汇率风险调整之后。

有些主张提高存款利率的人对市场间的比较不以为然,他们喜欢援引经济学家所用的增长模型:即当一国经济处于“均衡状态”时,其实际利率应当等于国内生产总值(GDP)增速。但这一概念更适用于贷款利率而非存款利率,而且更适用于低速但稳步增长的成熟经济体,而非处于追赶阶段的发展中经济体。它还适用于既不扩张也不萎缩、且不对外部市场开放的“静态”经济体。中国明显不符合上述条件。

但许多人辩称,银行间利率飙升表明中国需要提高利率,取消目前的存款利率上限将有帮助。的确,只是取消存款利率上限很可能带来短期增长。面对流动性紧缺的民营银行更倾向于推出更高的存款利率,因为在揽储竞争中,它们不具备大型国有银行享有的规模和国家担保优势。但在监管不善的市场里,这些银行也更有可能从事投机活动,带来更大的破产风险。所以,在金融市场和激励手段仍扭曲的情况下,完全放开利率管制未必能带来更好的结局。

同样,那些以国企浪费为由主张提高贷款利率的人,高估了效率收益,因为在中国,利率在长期投资决策中并不起太大作用。浪费的主要根源在于国企可以赚到垄断利润(利润上缴国家比例过低),以及响应政治背景的指令。纠正这些扭曲,以及改革国有银行治理、加大资本市场深度、建立更有效的监管体系,这一切在改革任务清单上的排序都应当大大高于存款利率市场化。

假如国有和私营银行在同等条件下竞争、且中国放开资本市场,那么利率会处于何种水平?如果中国取消资本管制,那么更多信誉良好的借款者可能就会赴海外借贷,利用比国内更低的贷款利率,并在一定程度上得到汇率下行风险较低的助推。越来越多的中国企业已经在进行利率套利,它们利用自己的海外附属单位获得更廉价的外部资金。类似的,受较高的存款利率吸引,外国资金会更多地流入中国。这将对存贷款利率都构成下行压力,使其跌至欧洲和美国的水平,并对人民币构成升值压力。

换言之,中国有一种不寻常的情况:投资占GDP的比率非常高,但储蓄率更高。储蓄盈余体现为贸易盈余,然后被央行投资至海外。最基本的经济学原理告诉我们,均衡利率是使储蓄等于投资的利率。如果不改革制度,那就只能通过降息让储蓄下降、让投资增加,直到两者达到平衡。

无论是与其他国家比较,还是以“均衡”利率的概念来衡量,中国的存款利率都太高,而不是太低。人们之所以形成中国存款利率太低的错误印象,根源在于人们认为中国眼下隐现的房地产泡沫是受到存款利率过低的驱动,而事实上,泡沫很大程度上是资本管制、以及股市和土地市场的扭曲所导致的。这一切都突显出加强治理和监管体制的重要性,这是金融改革的前提。

本文作者是卡内基国际和平基金会(Carnegie Endowment)高级研究员,曾任世界银行(World Bank)中国局局长

译者/何黎

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