The yuan sank to a five-year low after China’s central bank set the currency’s reference rate at an unexpectedly weak level, a sign that policy makers are becoming more tolerant of depreciation as intervention costs rise and economic growth slows.
The People’s Bank of China cut its daily fixing to the lowest level since April 2011, weaker than Tuesday’s onshore closing level. The currency tumbled 1.1 percent in Hong Kong’s freely traded market — the most since the day after a surprise devaluation in August — and lost 0.6 percent in Shanghai as both exchange rates slumped to their weakest levels since at least March 2011. The gap between the two widened to a record.
While China’s defense of the yuan stabilized the currency for almost four months following the Aug. 11 devaluation, intervention led to the first-ever annual decline in the nation’s foreign-exchange reserves. Official support has been more sporadic since the start of December as the weakest economic expansion in a quarter century and rising U.S. interest rates fueled capital outflows. Analysts at Macquarie Bank Ltd. and Mizuho Bank Ltd. said the PBOC’s exchange-rate policy is becoming harder to gauge.
“The market will be confused by what Beijing is trying to signal with the recent market intervention and today’s fixing,” said Nizam Idris, head of foreign-exchange and fixed-income strategy at Macquarie Bank in Singapore.
The central bank intervened in the currency market on Tuesday to prevent excessive volatility, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter. A few major Chinese banks sold U.S. currency when the onshore yuan dropped to around 6.5460 per dollar on Wednesday, but the offerings weren’t stable or constant, according to traders who asked not to be named.
The offshore yuan dropped beyond 6.70 per dollar for the first time since September 2010, about two months after trading was first permitted in Hong Kong, while the onshore rate was 6.5560 as of 5:05 p.m. in Shanghai. The Hong Kong rate’s discount to the domestic level widened to a record 2.5 percent, after spreads of up to 1.8 percent triggered suspected PBOC intervention in the offshore market last week.
The central bank’s August devaluation, which sparked a rout in emerging-market currencies and stocks, was accompanied by a revamp of its methodology for setting the yuan’s daily fixing to give market forces greater sway. While allowing depreciation may help the Chinese economy, it risks spooking global markets, according to Japan’s Resona Bank Ltd.