最近一个时期内，中国最严重的信贷紧缩似乎已经过去。6月25日，中国人民银行（the People's Bank of China）发布了一份公告来稳定人心，扫除了投资者对中国银行间同业拆借市场流动性不足的担忧。中国股市停止暴跌，银行间拆借利率从20%以上回落至6%左右（仍为最近恐慌行情出现之前平均利率的两到三倍）。看来中国已经躲过了自己的雷曼时刻，至少目前是这样。
The worst credit squeeze in China in recent memory seems to be over. After the People's Bank of China (PBOC), the country's central bank, issued a reassuring statement on June 25 that dispelled investors' worries about the lack of liquidity in China's interbank loan market, Chinese stock markets halted their plunge, and the rates of China's interbank loans fell from over 20% to around 6% (still two to three times greater than the average rate before the recent panic). China's Lehman moment, for now at least, appears to have been averted.
However, many questions remain, both about the causes of the recent turmoil in China's banking system and the implications for the Chinese economy.
As for what prompted the recent seizing-up of China's interbank loan market, there is no shortage of theories. The PBOC, widely perceived as having engineered an artificial credit squeeze to crack down on China's shadow banking sector, has come out with innocent but not very credible explanations. It blames the panic on a set of coincidental factors, such as the June deadline for banks to report their numbers (a requirement that forces many banks to reduce outstanding loans and embellish their risk profiles), tax due dates at the end of May and middle of June (tax payments suck cash out of the circulation), and increased demand for cash before a traditional Chinese holiday.
An alternative explanation, popular mainly among economists and investors, is that the PBOC was engaged in a high-stakes game with players in China's shadow banking system, all with the blessing of China's new political leadership. Because interbank loans constitute the bulk of funding for borrowers in the shadow banking system, making such loans less available sends a powerful message that the central government will no longer tolerate risky behavior and keep inflating China's credit bubble. Some analysts went so far as to suggest that this is the first shot fired by the Chinese government to signal the start of a deleveraging process.
There is a third explanation, which is simpler and perhaps more reasonable. This incident is most likely a botched response by the Chinese monetary authorities to a problem that has been long in the making but exploded without warning and caught them completely by surprise.
The growth of China's shadow banking system (with estimated outstanding credits equaling roughly 10-15% of the balance sheet of the formal banking sector) has long been flagged as a source of risk in China's financial sector. Chinese policy-makers are fully aware of the risky activities within this sector but have opted to do nothing because the system serves several useful functions and has powerful interest groups. Local governments, real estate developers, and private entrepreneurs unable to obtain loans from the state-owned formal banking sector can tap this system for funding by paying a higher interest rate. State-owned banks and investment companies pocket lucrative transaction fees by peddling wealth management products (WMPs) issued by borrowers to depositors chasing high yields. When this game is going well, a lot of rich and powerful people make money while risk builds up in the financial sector.
As with similar instances of financial recklessness, confidence can evaporate quickly, setting off a panicked exit from the market. Even sophisticated and capable regulators are often ill-prepared for such unforeseen and highly disruptive events. If we analyze the recent gyrations in China's interbank loan market from this perspective, we may gain a better understanding of the causes behind the short-lived panic and avoid overreacting to or over-interpreting this event.