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* PBOC sets midpoint weaker than 7/dlr for first time since 2008
* PBOC might have heavily used counter-cyclical factor in midpoint fixing - traders
* Seven yuan to the dollar not the "red line" - analyst (Adds details, comments and background)
SHANGHAI, Aug 8 (Reuters) - China's yuan inched up in early trade on Thursday, despite the central bank setting its official midpoint past the key seven to the dollar threshold for the first time since global financial crisis.
The People's Bank of China (PBOC) set the midpoint rate at 7.0039 per dollar prior to the market open, 43 pips weaker than the previous fix of 6.9996.
While this was the weakest central bank fixing since April 21, 2008, it was firmer than market expectations and seen as a signal that authorities wanted to stabilize the decline in the currency following this week's sharp falls.
Broad weakness in the official guidance rate came after heavy losses in the spot yuan, as tensions between the world's two largest economies broadened to include foreign exchange policy with Washington earlier this week declaring China a currency manipulator.
Offshore yuan hovered above record lows on Thursday. Earlier this week, the onshore currency weakened past the psychologically important 7 per dollar mark for the first time in 11 years.
"After the market broke 7, it was just a matter of time before the fixing broke the same level," said Frances Cheung, head of Asia macro strategy at Westpac in Singapore.
The onshore spot yuan opened at 7.0402 per dollar and was changing hands at 7.0485 as of 0224 GMT, 111 pips firmer than the previous late session close. Its offshore counterpart was trading at 7.0720 per dollar, firmer that Wednesday's close of 7.0823.
Investors have been closely tracking the PBOC's official fixing this week looking for clues on Beijing's currency stance to guide their yuan positions.
Analysts said Thursday's midpoint was much stronger than their forecasts, suggesting the central bank might have used the so-called "counter-cyclical factor" intensively.
The counter-cyclical factor, first introduced in May 2017 to the midpoint formula, is widely interpreted by the market as an official tool to reduce price swings and temper depreciation expectations.
"The heavily used counter-cyclical factor showed that the central bank was only planning to smash the magic 7 curse, rather than guiding with continued depreciation," said a trader at a Chinese bank in Shanghai.
On Thursday, the official guidance rate was 2.4% stronger than Reuters' estimate of 7.0205 per dollar.
Ken Cheung, senior Asian FX strategist at Mizuho Bank in Hong Kong, said the fixing confirmed the psychologically key level was not the "red line" for the yuan.
"USD/CNY trading above 7 is a new reasonable equilibrium. And PBOC signals to allow gradual RMB depreciation at an orderly pace," he said.
"PBOC is less committed to keeping RMB steady after the breakdown of trade talks."
In an effort to slow the yuan's decline, China's major state-owned banks have this week been active in the yuan forwards markets, using swaps to curb greenback supply, sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
Four sources with knowledge of the matter said that state banks were seen swapping yuan for dollars in onshore forwards market to support the Chinese unit.
Market participants believe major state-run banks often act on behalf of the PBOC in the country's foreign exchange market.
(Reporting by Winni Zhou and Andrew Galbraith; Editing by Sam Holmes)