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China declares shift to "prudent" monetary policy

By Zhou Xin and Simon Rabinovitch

BEIJING (Reuters) - China will switch to a prudent monetary policy from a moderately loose stance, the Communist Party's top leaders decided on Friday, a change that could pave the way for more interest rate increases and lending controls.

At the same time, the Politburo elected to maintain China's proactive fiscal policy, an indication that the government wants to continue to ramp up investment spending even while taking tightening steps to control inflation.

That was underscored on Thursday when sources told Reuters that China is considering investments of up to $1.5 trillion over five years to promote the production of high-value technologies.

Chinese and global markets were little affected by the policy announcement, with investors seeing the new wording as an affirmation of the gradual tightening that Beijing has already started to implement.

But while the change in policy description had been discussed for several weeks by central bank advisers, the Politburo's endorsement, reported by the official Xinhua news agency, could still mark a decisive turning point.

"It means that all sorts of monetary policy tools to control liquidity and to control inflation can now be used," said Ken Peng, an economist with Citigroup in Beijing.

"In the past we've been clearly focusing on administrative measures. Going forward we could be using more price adjustments via interest rates," he said, adding that he expected five rate increases by the end of next year.

China has raised interest rates just once this year as it has guided its monetary policy back to normal from the ultra-loose settings it adopted to counter the global financial crisis. Instead, it has used quantitative tools to do the heavy work, officially raising banks' reserve requirements five times.

"The prudent monetary policy stance means compared with this year, policy next year will be biased toward tightening," Xia Bin, an academic adviser to the central bank, told Reuters.

EXPRESSION OF CONFIDENCE

Along with playing a role in the fight against inflation, policy tightening also signals confidence that the world's second-largest economy is on solid ground, even as the U.S. and European recoveries remain fragile.

"China has no need now to worry about overall demand at all," said Dong Xian'an, chief economist with Industrial Securities in Beijing. "Instead, the top priority is to curb inflation and avoid economic overheating."

"The sooner China acts and the more forceful measures it takes, the better," he said.

Consumer inflation hit a 25-month high in October, as price rose 4.4 percent from a year earlier, and is expected to have edged higher in November. Although it has been driven almost exclusively by food prices, pressures have been broadening on the back of higher global commodity costs.

China's cabinet vowed last month to take "forceful" measures, including price controls if necessary, to rein in inflation.

But in maintaining a proactive fiscal policy, the government sent a strong message that it wants to keep cash flowing through the economy to power its development.

The $1.5 trillion, five-year investment plan will target sectors that include alternative energy, biotechnology, new-generation information technology, high-end equipment manufacturing, advanced materials, and environmentally friendly technologies.

The Central Economic Work Conference, they key annual meeting at which top leaders chart out economic policies for next year, is expected to discuss the plan when it convenes later this month.

LENDING CONTROLS

A major prong of the government's stimulus program was a flood of lending by banks. China has already begun to rein in loan issuance this year and the shift to a prudent monetary policy could signal more restrictions next year.

Banks are on track to issue 7.5 trillion yuan in new loans this year and that could fall to 7 trillion yuan next year, Xia, the central bank adviser, said. This would imply about 15 percent lending growth, down from this year's nearly 20 percent clip, he added.

Money market rates have spiked in the last couple of weeks, as a flurry of reserve requirement increases drained cash from the financial system and prompted banks to sit on funds in anticipation of further credit curbs.

China's key measure of short-term liquidity, the weighted average seven-day bond repurchase rate, jumped from 1.75 percent in mid-November to over 3.33 percent on Friday, just shy of a more than two-year high. <CN/>

(Additional reporting by Langi Chiang; Editing by Don Durfee and Neil Fullick)

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