HONG KONG — China’s central bank raised a key interest rate slightly Thursday for the first time in nearly five months, in what economists interpreted as the beginning of a broader move to tighten monetary policy and forestall inflation.
After breaking stride a year ago during the global economic slowdown, the Chinese economy resumed galloping growth over the summer. Government investments, real estate construction and consumer spending are all rising briskly, thanks to a surge in lending by government-controlled banks.
Even exports have begun to recover despite continued economic weakness in the European Union and the United States, China’s two biggest overseas markets.
Raising interest rates may help discourage speculative investments by Chinese companies and individuals in real estate projects and other areas of economic activity. China’s dilemma is that higher rates may also prompt overseas investors seeking higher returns to redouble their efforts to push money into China, despite the country’s stringent capital controls.
The People’s Bank of China announced Thursday that the yield from its weekly sale of three-month central bank bills had inched up to 1.3684 percent. The yield had been stuck at 1.328 percent since Aug. 13.
An increase of less than 0.05 of a percentage point might sound small, but economists said it was a harbinger of more interest rate increases to come.
They cited expectations that consumer and producer prices would rise in the months ahead, particularly compared with low price levels a year ago, when demand temporarily slumped in China as well as the rest of the world.
“It is a turning point,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, an economist in the Hong Kong offices of Royal Bank of Scotland. “There is a convergence of events that will lead to higher rates.”
The increase in the interest rate turned mainland China’s stock markets into Asia’s worst performers Thursday. The CSI 300 index of shares on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets slumped 1.98 percent.
Air freight capacity out of mainland China and Hong Kong was almost fully booked in December, according to shippers, making it likely that China would post strong exports when it released a flood of monthly and annual economic data next week. But in interviews this week, senior corporate executives voiced a range of opinions about whether this strength would continue into the new year, or whether the surge in December represented a flurry of restocking by retailers who went into the Christmas season with meager inventories.
Victor Fung, the nonexecutive chairman of Li & Fung, a Hong Kong-based trading and supply chain management company that is one of the world’s largest, said that overseas demand had not been strong enough to sustain the strength in China’s shipments seen last month. But he added that his own staff was somewhat more optimistic than he is, as are some investment bank economists.
Thursday’s slight increase in interest rates could prove even more significant if it marks the start of an effort by Chinese regulators to limit bank lending. Chinese banks have not only lent heavily at home, but stepped up lending in other countries as well, taking market share from Western banks hobbled by the global financial crisis.
Top officials at the People’s Bank of China concluded an annual two-day policy review on Wednesday with a lengthy statement that had particularly strong cautions against bank lending to sectors of the economy with overcapacity or excessive energy use. Chinese bank regulators also warned banks in late November to show more caution in lending and raise more capital to underpin the surge in lending they have already done; the publicly traded Bank of China is widely expected to take the lead in raising money this year.
Thursday’s interest rate increase is not the first since the bottom of the economic downturn. After cutting interest rates on the same 3-month central bank bills by 2.4 percentage points in the last quarter of 2008 as the world’s financial system trembled, the People’s Bank nudged up interest rates by 0.363 from late June to early August last year in a series of increasingly large weekly increases.