China: "please don't talk about our screwed-up banking system"

Nobody panic. That's an order.

China really, really doesn't want people talking about its economic woes. The FT:

In a directive written last week and transmitted over the past few days to newspapers and television stations, local propaganda departments of the Communist party instructed reporters to stop “hyping the so-called cash crunch” and to spread the message that the country’s markets are well stocked with money.

Clearly there's no better way to get reporters talking about something than telling them not to, so here's a quick primer on the country's cash crunch.

Two weeks ago, money market rates in China rose rapidly to double digits, causing interbank lending to freeze up; the scene was alarmingly reminiscent of the Western credit crunch, and many feared that the country was about to have its own Lehman moment.

Fears were stoked by the central bank's refusal to intervene, apparently influenced by a political desire to "correct" the bank's behaviour. A scheduled auction the day after the rate spike would have provided the perfect opportunity to inject extra cash into the economy, but nothing happened.

Eventually, Beijing capitulated, and, on 25 June, committed to bailing out any and all failing banks, ensuring, at least for now, that the market interest rates will decline rapidly. That's not a long-term solution – that would involve boosting the liquidity of Chinese banks such that they aren't at risk of collapsing in the first place – but it preserves the banking system for the time being.

Still, the stock market did not respond happily to the turmoil. Falling ten per cent over a week, it dropped a further six per cent on the day the central bank promised action, although the announcement reversed the trend and it clawed back most of that day's losses. That seems to be the motivation for the media blackout, one of the first in the country to be targeted at the financial press. The FT reports some of the contents of the directive:

First, we must avoid malicious hype. Media should report and explain that our markets are guaranteed to have sufficient liquidity, and that our monetary policy is steady, not tight.

Second, media must strengthen their positive reporting. They should fully report the positive aspect of our current economic situation, bolstering the market’s confidence.

Third, media must positively guide public opinion. They should promptly and accurately explain in a positive manner the measures taken by and information from the central bank.

Translation: if anyone does a Robert Peston, heads will roll.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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