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China Turmoil Batters Faith in Beijing's Management Skills

FILE - An investor looks at an electronic screen showing stock information at brokerage house in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Jan. 11, 2016.
FILE - An investor looks at an electronic screen showing stock information at brokerage house in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Jan. 11, 2016.

Stock market and currency turmoil has battered Chinese leaders' reputation as shrewd economic managers and fed doubts about their willingness to push through more wrenching reforms.

In the stock market, a “circuit breaker” to suspend trading in the event of wide price swings backfired and fueled steeper falls. It was withdrawn after just four days. That followed complaints curbs on stock sales and other emergency measures imposed to stop last year's market plunge were clumsy and fueled investor panic.

In currency markets, Beijing has struggled to squelch expectations it plans to devalue the yuan. That has forced the government to spend tens of billions of dollars to defend the exchange rate.

Such volatility is common in developing countries, but China's status as the world's second-largest economy and biggest trader mean missteps cause global shockwaves. And the latest turmoil has a political tinge because it comes as Beijing is promoting a bigger role for itself as a regional military power and in managing international trade and finance.

The Communist Party under President Xi Jinping wants the prosperity that comes from free-market competition and has promised entrepreneurs a bigger role in the state-dominated economy. But when stock prices plunged last June, the party reached back to the era of central planning for the sledgehammer of direct government control. It banned sales by large shareholders and ordered state companies to buy.

Forecasters who expect China to keep growing at a healthy rate “pinned that expectation on a belief that market forces will be given greater play,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist for Capital Economics. “If the government cannot bring itself to allow market forces to be felt in China, then the outlook is a lot grimmer.”

The party has won praise for making it easier to start and run a private business. But it has yet to act on what the World Bank and other reform advocates say is the most pressing issue: Cutting monopolies and other privileges of state companies that control industries from banking to energy to telecoms and are a drag on China's steadily slowing economic growth.

That reflects the intense political forces opposed to reducing the state's role in the economy, especially from the party's own factions that see a threat to the flow of money and other resources they can extract from government industries.

Beijing's moves on stocks and currency “are indicative of tension between the leadership's desire for market-oriented reform and the apparent fundamental objective of control,” said Louis Kuijs of Oxford Economics in a report. “How this tension will be resolved in the coming years will be central to China's economic development and thus will have major global ramifications.”

The latest turbulence is a blemish on an acclaimed record of achievement as party leaders steered China through two decades of explosive growth to become the world's second-largest economy.

A society of farmers and factory workers who lived in state housing evolved in little over a decade into a nation of homeowners. After the 2008 crisis, China rebounded quickly while Western countries struggled. China emerged as the most important growth market for designer clothes, Hollywood movies and smartphones.

But now, the World Bank and other advisers say China has reached a point where the economy no longer can be micromanaged by bureaucrats if it is to keep growing.

Last year's economic growth, due to be reported next week, is forecast to have slowed to 7 percent or below. That still would be the world's second-highest, surpassed only by India, which is one-tenth China's size.

But growth is forecast to fall further this year and economists say it will dwindle to dangerously low levels without more private competition. That raises the risk of job losses and political unrest.

For investors abroad who lack a detailed understanding of Chinese economic management, the stock market rout shook their confidence in China's leaders, said Bernard Aw, a strategist for IG in Singapore.

“Of course, the backtracking on the circuit breakers, that kind of news makes the misunderstanding even deeper,” said Aw. “It also creates the impression that, Oh, they are doing trial and error, they don't know what they are doing.”

Investor trust also has been eroded by the Communist Party's reflexive secrecy and abrupt policy changes with little warning.

In August, the central bank startled global markets by announcing it would use a new mechanism to make yuan's state-set exchange rate more market-oriented. The People's Bank of China gave few details and allowed the yuan to fall 2 percent against the dollar the first day, stirring fears of a steeper decline and possible competitive devaluations by other governments.

After weeks of uncertainty, Premier Li Keqiang tried to mollify concern by telling an audience of businesspeople Sept. 9 that Beijing had no plans for a “continuous devaluation.” But over the four months since then, the central bank appeared to contradict that by allowing the yuan to fall another 3.4 percent to a five-year low against the dollar.

The uncertainty has led to a capital outflow of tens of billions of dollars a month. Financial analysts say investors don't believe repeated promises to avoid a bigger decline, so they are shifting assets abroad before anything valued in yuan loses value.

Williams, of Capital Economics, points to the counter-example of India, where central bank governor Raghuram Rajan is credited with cooling inflation since 2013 with a strategy that included talking in detail about his goals.

“There is a much greater sense of trust among businesses and households toward the [Indian] central bank,” said Williams, “and we just don't see that at all in China.”