Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bubbling over in China?

by Calculated Risk on 3/10/2010 07:15:00 PM

From CR: There are so many reports of a housing bubble in China, I asked a friend living in China for his thoughts ... this is his view:

From Michael Kleist in Shanghai:

News of soaring housing prices in China, which are now hovering around late 2007 peaks, naturally invites talk of bubbles and excessive speculation. More so, since the 2007 highs led to a humbling drop in prices for homeowners and investors in 2008. Are things heading that way again in 2010?

Not necessarily.

Let’s start with the news in the papers. See the WSJ today: China Property Prices Surge

It’s clear the housing market in China has been hot, topped by February’s 10.7% YoY increase in prices. In fact, housing prices have been rising for 9 straight months YoY in China, which coincides to some degree with the government’s massive stimulus package that took effect first quarter 2009.

Certainly there is some speculation inside these numbers, as there would be in any hot property market. The government has shown enough concern on this point, and overheating in general, to tell banks last month to curtail lending and increase reserve rations.

But the bigger reason for rising home prices in China may simply be due to an imbalance in supply and demand.

In 2008 the housing market tanked, in large part, because the China government, which was worried about overheating in the property sector, slammed on the brakes in 2007. The government added a hefty tax on homes sold within 5 years of purchase, increased fees, told banks to raise interest rates on home loans and increase minimum down payments, and essentially forced banks to stop lending to developers.

The result was a dried up market, a drastic drop in prices, and an almost complete halt in new home starts.

When in early 2009, in response to the economic crisis, the China government launched its stimulus package it also stoked the property market by once again loosening lending regulations and lowering taxes and fees for both developers and home buyers. Builders began building and people began buying homes again. As a result, prices naturally began to go up.

What we are seeing today is that with fewer homes on the market after a nearly 2 year lull in building, the prices have continued to climb.

This imbalance will likely even out as the homes started in 2009 become available for sale. Most likely, this will result in a stabilization of prices but not a bursting bubble because it’s not even clear there is a housing bubble in China.

Certainly there isn’t a mortgage credit-related bubble. The majority of homes in China are purchased with down payments between 30-40%, which is required by the banks, and nearly 25% of homes are purchased with all cash. Only those qualifying for low-cost housing can purchase a home with a minimum down payment as low as 20%. For this reason foreclosures in China are practically nonexistent.

In addition, the majority of home buyers in China are still either first-time buyers or upgrading their home. Only an estimated around 20% of home buyers in China are pure investors. As with any statistics coming out of China, this figure can be questioned, but regardless, if investors are speculating, they are doing it with large cash down payments.

Still, it is clear that prices in tier 1 cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen in the south have risen to amazing levels for China. Flats in downtown Shanghai can sell for RMB150,000 (US$ 22,000) per square meter with exclusive homes in prime locations commanding even higher prices. To get a new home for under RMB18,000 (US$2,640) per square meter certainly requires a trip to the suburbs and only a hope of being near a subway line.

With prices at these highs, it is fair to wonder at what point the situation in China can be called a bubble and what risk there is of it bursting.

With regard to the bursting side of this question, two things to keep in mind are the tremendous amount of influence the China government has to manipulate the housing market (both up and down) and its strong desire to keep prices stable or rising comfortably without squashing the market like it did at the end of 2007.

The central government in China has multiple tools at its disposal to directly impact the market. This begins with its control over all of the country’s commercial banks. When the Party tells banks to increase or adjust lending there is an immediate response. That’s one reason why the country was able to recover so quickly from the world credit crunch. The government uses this blunt tool when it feels there is a need for a country-wide impact on lending.

More subtly, it can direct banks to adjust mortgage rates or down payment percentages in specific locations that seem to be heating or cooling, it its mind, at an unreasonably pace.

One of the government’s most effective tools against speculation is to raise the down payment ratio and interest rate for buyers with an existing mortgage trying to purchase a second home. Currently, in Shanghai any buyer of a home with an existing mortgage is required to have a minimum down payment of 40% and must pay a higher interest rate on the loan than a first time buyer or buyer without an existing loan. This is a very effective approach that targets speculators without affecting the rest of the market and can be applied locally. In some locations, banks are forbidden to approve any second home loan until the first loan is paid off.

The point here is that as long as China’s government acts by tapping the brakes when and where necessary, a precipitous drop in home prices is unlikely. This assumes the government has learned from its mistakes in late 2007 when it adjusted too hard.

Given the sentiment and concern out of Beijing about keeping a balanced economy as the world recovers, I think the likelihood of any strong movements to dampen the housing market across China are low. More likely, through 2010 it will continue to use the banks and rules on second mortgages to cool specific locations while letting the overall market grow.

Note: Michael lives in Shanghai and has been in China for 8 years. He is a founder of www.tradesparq.com, a trade advertising platform that combines products and categories with social networking web tools to match international buyers and sellers. Michael hopes to address how local Chinese can afford homes in China in a future post.

From CR: This was Michael's view. It is certainly different than what we read in the U.S. I'm looking forward to his next post - US$ 22,000 per square meter (about $2,000 per foot) sounds very expensive to me - but the large downpayments should cushion in spillover if prices do decline.