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Weak start to year a test for Beijing: analysts
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) March 16, 2014

UBS attempted to rig Hong Kong interest rate: probe
Hong Kong (AFP) March 14, 2014 - Swiss banking giant UBS attempted to rig Hong Kong's benchmark interest rate, the city's de facto central bank said on Friday following a more than year-long investigation.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) began its probe into the local interbank rate, or Hibor, in December 2012 after it received information from overseas regulators about "possible misconduct" by UBS.

It later expanded its probe to include nine banks including HSBC Holdings and Royal Bank of Scotland but found that only UBS attempted to rig rates.

"The HKMA found about 100 communication records during 2006 to 2009, in the form of internal chat messages, which contained change requests by several UBS traders to the UBS Hibor submitter with a view to rigging the Hibor," it said in a statement released Friday.

The regulator has demanded that UBS take disciplinary actions against staff members who were involved in the act or failed to report it and that the bank implement a "remedial plan" within six months.

The investigation covered more than 31 million communication records between 2005 and 2012 from nine banks and the HKMA believed the attempted rigging did not have any impact on the Hibor.

In December 2012 UBS was ordered to pay $1.5 billion in fines to national regulators in three countries to settle accusations that it tried to manipulate interest rates.

Probes by Swiss, British and US regulators revealed evidence of massive misconduct in the setting of the London interbank offered rate (Libor), a global reference that affects products from student loans to mortgages.

The Libor scandal threatened over a dozen other banks, with British bank Barclays agreeing in June of 2012 to pay 290 million ($471 million) to British and US regulators to settle charges related to manipulation of rates.

China could miss its official growth target for the first time in 16 years, a snap poll of economists by AFP shows after surprisingly weak data for January and February.

Industrial output, a key measure of production at factories, workshops and mines in the world's second-largest economy, rose just 8.6 percent in the first two months of 2014, the slowest pace in five years, government figures showed Thursday.

Retail sales, an indicator of consumer spending, increased at the lowest rate since February 2011, while growth in fixed asset investment, a gauge of government spending on infrastructure, came in at a surprisingly low 17.9 percent during the period, according to the data.

In a survey of 10 economists by AFP on Friday, the median forecast for 2014 growth was 7.4 percent, with some saying the weak start to the year had led them to cut their annual predictions.

At the just-concluded National People's Congress (NPC), Premier Li Keqiang set this year's growth target at "around 7.5 percent", lower than last year's actual expansion of 7.7 percent -- which was unchanged from 2012 and the worst since 7.6 percent in 1999.

China is a key driver of the world economy and the last time its actual GDP growth came in below the government target was in 1998, at the height of the Asian financial crisis.

"The disappointing economic data in January-February will be a test of the government's tolerance level, as this pace of deceleration has rarely been seen before," Shen Jianguang, a Hong Kong-based economist with Mizuho Securities, said in a research note.

He cut his projection for 2014 growth from 7.5 percent to 7.3 percent.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts also lowered their prediction from 7.6 percent to 7.2 percent for the full year due to the "significantly weaker than expected" data in the first two months.

Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, said that if economic growth falls under 7.5 percent in the first quarter, there will be "significant risks of not hitting the annual target".

Chinese shares closed down Friday on worries over an economic slowdown, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index dropping 0.73 percent.

- Key downside risks -

China's top leaders have said they are ready to accept slower expansion as they seek to transform the economy's growth model away from an over-reliance on often wasteful investment, and instead make private demand the driver of future development.

After the close of the NPC, China's Communist Party-controlled legislature, on Thursday Premier Li sought to downplay the importance of the target.

"We have a level of flexibility by setting the target at around 7.5 percent," he said.

He did not specify the lowest rate the government could accept, only saying it must ensure sufficient job creation.

"We think the government will not let growth slide below the 7.0 percent mark," Wang Tao, a UBS economist in Hong Kong, said in a report.

Key downside risks ahead this year include uncertainties in export recovery, credit volatilities related to China's multi-trillion-dollar shadow banking sector -- heightened by the country's first-ever default on a domestic corporate bond last week -- and a "more pronounced" property slowdown, she said.

Yao Wei, an analyst with Societe Generale, said in a research note: "New leaders are now facing a critical test: whether they can stabilise the economy, without significantly compromising the progress of lowering debt risks."

The government has avoided introducing major stimulus measures since Li took office in March last year, and the ruling party leadership promised in November to let the market play the "decisive" role in resource allocation.

But that vow could make it more difficult for the government to intervene in the economy, for example with infrastructure investment, as such policies "may conceptually contradict the goal", Goldman Sachs economist Song Yu said in a report.

"It does imply more constraints on what and how much the government can do compared with the past," Song wrote.


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China industrial output growth at five-year low: govt
Beijing March 13, 2014
China's industrial production rose at its slowest pace in five years and other key indicators showed surprising weakness, data showed Thursday, raising alarm bells over the world's second-largest economy as Premier Li Keqiang outlined "serious challenges" ahead. Industrial output, which measures production at factories, workshops and mines, rose 8.6 percent in January and February year-on-ye ... read more

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