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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.