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A regulatory tempest lashes China’s markets

IT IS is the kind of company that for years was a safe bet for investors. China City Construction is big, government-owned and focused on building basic infrastructure such as sewers. But the bet, it turns out, was not so safe after all. In November China City missed interest payments on three separate bonds, after failing to refinance its hefty debts. It is one of a growing number of victims of the government’s clean-up of the financial system, or what is known in China as the “regulatory storm”.

The storm has been gathering strength for the better part of a year but its intensity over the past couple of weeks has caught many off-guard. The government wasted little time after an important Communist party meeting in October before taking on some of the riskier parts of the financial system. As a result, China’s risk-free interest rate—ie, the yield on government bonds— has shot up. Overall, it has risen by a percentage point since the start of 2017.

For firms, even those closely tied to the state, the rise in borrowing costs has been even steeper. The yield on ten-year bonds issued by China Development Bank, a “policy bank” that finances state projects at home and abroad, has soared to nearly 5%, the highest in three years (see chart).

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ApprovedBusiness and financeFINANCEFinance and economics

A flattening yield curve argues against higher interest rates

CENTRAL bankers may control short-term interest rates, but long-term ones are mostly free to wander. They do not always behave. When Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, was raising short rates in 2005, he described a simultaneous decline in long rates as a “conundrum”. His successor-to-be, Ben Bernanke, blamed foreign investments in American assets because of a “global saving glut”.

Janet Yellen, today’s (outgoing) Fed chair, faces a similar puzzle. Ms Yellen’s Fed has raised rates twice this year, and will probably make it three times in December. In October the Fed began to reverse quantitative easing (QE), purchases of financial assets with newly created money. Despite all this monetary tightening, yields on ten-year Treasury bonds have fallen from around 2.5% at the start of 2017 to about 2.3% today. As a result, the “yield curve” is flattening. The difference between ten-year and two-year interest rates is at its lowest since November 2007 (see chart).

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