The head of China's central bank said Monday it has room to ease lending curbs to support economic growth but any changes would be gradual.
The rapid growth of the world's second-largest economy has slowed over the past year as Beijing tightened controls to prevent overheating. Chinese leaders have responded to a decline in global demand by promising pro-growth policies, and companies and investors are closely watching what steps they will take.
There is scope to lower the level of reserves Chinese banks are required to hold — a move that would free more money for lending to businesses — after the minimum level was raised five times in 2010 and 2011, said Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan of the People's Bank of China. The minimum stands at 20 percent of deposits for China's biggest lenders.
"We have a lot of room to adjust the reserve ratio. On the other hand, it is necessary to see whether there is a necessity to adjust," Zhou said at a news conference during the annual meeting of China's legislature. He gave no indication when regulators might lower reserves.
"We need to take in to consideration the different restriction factors and we need to see the advantages and disadvantages of adjustment, especially its impact on financial flows," Zhou said.
Zhou and other officials at the event said the central bank will closely watch Europe's debt crisis and other global factors that might hurt the Chinese economy. But they emphasized that on a wide range of issues, policy changes will be gradual and cautious.
"Our monetary policy will have to follow conditions in China and also internationally. We will cope with problems responsibly," Zhou said.
China's economic growth eased to 8.9 percent in the final quarter of 2011 from the previous year's double-digit expansion. The government's growth target this year is 7.5 percent.
The latest trade data show both Chinese and global demand weakening.
Figures released Saturday showed export growth in the combined January-February period slowed to 6.9 percent, compared with December's 13.4 percent. Analysts often combine the two months to screen out disruption from the Lunar New Year holiday, which falls at different times in that period each year.
Growth in imports for the two months declined to 7.7 percent from December's 11.8 percent.
Also Monday, central bank officials said Beijing will press ahead with reforms to ease controls on its tightly regulated currency and give market forces a bigger role in setting the yuan's exchange rate, but they gave no details.
"We will continue with the reform to have an exchange-rate regime that is more market-based," said Yi Gang, the deputy bank governor in charge of foreign currency.
Washington and other trading partners complain an undervalued yuan gives China's exporters an unfair price advantage and swells its trade surpluses. Some American lawmakers want to raise tariffs on Chinese goods if Beijing fails to end its controls.
Yi and other officials did not respond to a question about whether Beijing believed the yuan has reached its fair value after its gradual rise against the dollar stopped in recent months and China reported an unexpectedly large $31.5 billion trade deficit for February.
Yi also expressed confidence in the ability of Europe, China's biggest trading partner, to solve its debt crisis. He said China will continue to invest in Europe, though he stressed that minimizing risk will be a priority. He gave no indication whether Beijing has decided to contribute to a bailout fund for countries that use the euro.
"We believe European countries will be able to cope with the euro crisis," Yi said. "We will continue to invest in Europe as a responsible investor."