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TIME on China’s Property Bubble

March 15, 2010

The latest issue of TIME Magazine (March 22, 2010) has an article on China’s real estate market that quotes me a couple of times, and refers to some of the core theories I’ve put forward on this blog.  You can find the original article here.

If you want to know more about my take on China’s real estate market, check out my original article in Far Eastern Economic Review, or you can listen to me on China Radio International or watch my interview on BON TV.  Or just look under the category “real estate” for more than a dozen posts I’ve written, that go into even greater detail.  Anyone who is curious about the hit TV show Wo Ju (Dwelling Narrowness), which the TIME article refers to, can read more about it here

China’s Property: Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

By Bill Powell

As he threads his taxicab every day through the epic traffic jams in and around Shanghai, jabbering on his cell phone and muttering under his breath, Yang Jinyu seems an unlikely real estate mogul. But when the government asked him to move out of his central Shanghai home so that the land it was on could be sold for redevelopment, he took the compensation payment and bought an apartment on Shanghai’s outskirts. Eight years later, after cleverly parlaying that first asset, the cabbie owns three apartments in the city and has his eyes on something bigger: a lovely five-bedroom, riverfront suburban house, owned but never occupied by a coal magnate from Shanxi province. “How much does he want for it?” he asked a local real estate agent in late February. When told the answer was $735,000, Yang didn’t blink. “I’d like to make an offer.”

On the back of such tales, conventional economic thinking says, dangerous speculative bubbles are built. And these days not much — aside from the possibility of a double-dip recession in the U.S. — has more economists, international investors, hedge-fund managers and bankers tearing their hair out than the deceptively simple question, Is China’s property market a bubble?

The reason for their angst is clear enough: throughout 2009, the most severe global downturn in decades, China’s economic growth remained intact. This year, China’s GDP will likely rise 9% or more, in contrast to a merely subpar recovery in the U.S. and Europe. For thousands of companies across the globe, anything that threatens China’s buoyancy threatens their own bottom lines. (Witness the sell-off in the S&P 500 on Feb. 12, when Beijing’s central bank raised by a tick the so-called reserve ratio requirement for its banks.) And nothing, not even massive government infrastructure spending, has driven China’s growth more than real estate investment.

Last year, total fixed-asset investment accounted for more than 90% of China’s overall growth; residential and commercial real estate investment comprised nearly a quarter of that. Toss in the not insignificant fact that it was a huge real estate bust in the U.S. that dumped the world into recession in the first place, and many analysts are now beginning to fear the worst. “China’s property market,” says independent Shanghai economist Andy Xie, “is a massive bubble.”

Since the start of the year, it has become clear that such concerns are shared by the central government in Beijing, which is seeking to tighten credit growth generally, and property loans in particular. The latest budget report from the Ministry of Finance, released to coincide with the opening of the National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 5, draws attention to debt levels being incurred by local governments forging headlong into massive infrastructural and development projects. Even as it was being distributed, Premier Wen Jiabao was telling NPC delegates that the authorities would slow both lending and new construction in 2010, and place additional curbs on speculative property investment. A mortgage discount for first-time property buyers — which made a fixed, 5% 20-year mortgage available for just above 4% — has already been eliminated, and lending standards for buyers looking at second and third properties as investments have been tightened appreciably.

The moves are belated. According to data compiled by real estate consultancy Colliers International, residential prices in 70 large and medium-sized cities across China soared in 2009, with 50% to 60% increases in Beijing and Shanghai. Real estate mania has become so intense that it has spilled over into pop culture. Last year one of the most popular television shows was a weekly drama entitled Wo Ju (literally “Dwelling Narrowness”), which focused on the plight of a young couple who spend two-thirds of their monthly income keeping up the mortgage on a tiny Shanghai apartment. Their tale is all too real. As economist Xie points out, residential prices in China relative to per capita income are far and away the highest in the world. The housing price-to-income ratio in urban China is over 20, which means it takes the average citizen’s total wages for 20 years to buy an average dwelling. (By comparison, the highest housing affordability ratio for a U.S. city — Honolulu — is 8.2.)

Some economists worry that oversupply in both the residential and commercial real estate markets has already prompted a downturn in pricing, and that the recent government initiatives could lead to a hard landing. In Beijing, vast swaths of commercial space sit vacant — including floors of retail space right next to the iconic Water Cube, the swimming venue for the 2008 Olympics. According to Colliers, commercial rents are now a shade lower than they were last year and residential prices have also begun to weaken. Residential prices, according to China Reality Research data, peaked late last year and are now headed down.

Keep Your Fingers Crossed
When bubbles finally do burst, recent history has shown, they tend to do so with a bang. Is China, in fact, now at the end of its real estate boom? Many are not convinced. They point to a couple of factors that make China’s situation different from that of the U.S. The first is that the real estate sector is nowhere near as reliant on debt financing as it is in the U.S. and much of the rest of the developed world. Consider the complex in which Yang, the cabbie, bought one of his three Shanghai apartments. The developer, Shanghai Forte Land, presold all the units before spending a cent on construction. In China’s residential market, financing development with customers’ cash, not loans, is standard operating procedure.

Nor, among home buyers in China, is there a significant amount of debt financing. According to Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University who studies the Chinese real estate sector, only about 50% of residential purchases are made using mortgages. The other half are paid for in full at the time of acquisition. (In the U.S., by contrast, over 90% of residential housing transactions are financed with mortgages.) One of the reasons for this is that, just like Yang, many Chinese have been moved out of formerly state-owned housing units in urban areas as part of redevelopment projects. The compensation payments, supplemented by some savings, are usually enough to buy decent apartments out of town. Economist Xie calls these resettlement payments “probably the most important government action supporting today’s economy.” And the fact is, Chinese municipalities are not even close to the end of such resettlement schemes.

Another critical factor underpinning the residential real estate market is formed by the psychology of the Chinese home buyer in combination with regulatory restraints on what they can do with their savings. Just 34 years out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and less than 15 years down the road from a nasty bout of inflation — consumer prices rose a staggering 21% in 1994 — the Chinese regard real estate as vital security (what Tsinghua’s Chovanec calls the “bar of gold” syndrome). Yang says he hasn’t even tried to rent out two of his three apartments because “it’s not that important to gain income from them; there is security in just owning them. They are paid for, and I know that if I ever get into any kind of economic trouble I can sell them. That’s real security.”

Buttressing that sort of attitude are the limited ways in which Chinese citizens can put their nest eggs to work. Bank interest rates remain regulated and miserly — offering less than 1% return on a standard savings account — and China has only just begun to open the door to its citizens being able to invest legally abroad. For most savers, that leaves real estate or the stock market — and if an apartment is the equivalent of a bar of gold, the stock market is the equivalent of a casino. Generally speaking, the Chinese love to gamble, but they love their bars of gold more.

None of this means, of course, that the market is safe. Indeed, people caught up in a bubble typically offer seemingly solid reasons as to why the bubble won’t burst. In Tokyo in the early 1990s, it was said that property prices wouldn’t crash because in mountainous Japan there was so little usable land relative to size of the population. That was, and remains, a topographical fact. It was also, eventually, irrelevant.

During his opening address to the NPC, Premier Wen said that 2010 was going to be a year of unprecedented economic complexity. He certainly got that right. A real estate downturn, perhaps a severe one, will hit China sooner or later. The problem is that if it arrives sooner, the world’s fastest-growing economy doesn’t have a whole lot to fall back on. Its export markets are still weak and its capacity to increase infrastructure spending again, after the massive increases of the past two years, is limited. With the rest of the world still trying to regain its economic footing, the authorities in Beijing are hoping they can shrink a bubble without bursting it entirely. Delicate business, that. And it’s not just the Chinese homeowner who should be praying that they can pull it off.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave permalink
    March 18, 2010 11:17 am

    I’ve started a Wikipedia article on the “Chinese property bubble” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_property_bubble

    Right now, it’s just haphazard collection of bullet points, but if anyone here wants to help improve it (even it just means posting a helpful comment here or on the article’s “Discussion” page) I would appreciate it.

    I think this is a major trend that deserves a complete, concise article documenting it.

  2. April 19, 2010 5:46 pm

    Lengthening the maturity of outstanding fixed interest US debt will increase inflation fears. A longer average maturity allows the US to inflate its debt away. Debt holders will not trust the Fed to keep inflation low while the US has a very high debt level.

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