China lands itself a property headache

A property advertisement outside luxury apartment blocks in central Beijing. A new survey showed average prices in China's 100 biggest cities rose 7.4 per cent last month over the same period last year, the eighth year-on-year rise in a row.
A property advertisement outside luxury apartment blocks in central Beijing. A new survey showed average prices in China's 100 biggest cities rose 7.4 per cent last month over the same period last year, the eighth year-on-year rise in a row. PHOTO: REUTERS

Prices in top cities soar but smaller cities stuck with huge stock of unsold homes

China's property sector is a study in contrast.

Its top cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen have introduced a slew of policies in recent days to cool soaring prices amid rising fears of a real estate bubble.

In hundreds of the country's smaller cities such as Changzhou in Jiangsu province, with a population of about five million, and Dandong in Liaoning province, however, there is a massive inventory of unsold homes. Worse, projects lie unfinished, abandoned by developers.

This is the huge challenge that Chinese authorities are facing in managing a key plank of the economy as growth slows.

"It's clearly a headache for Beijing trying to coordinate policy when markets are going in different directions because the property sector is not just a key driver of growth, but affects sentiment too, which then affects confidence in the currency and equity markets," said OCBC China economist Tommy Xie.

As small cities struggle with unsold homes, a survey out yesterday showed housing prices are continuing to rise. China Real Estate Index System's poll showed average prices in China's 100 biggest cities rose 7.4 per cent last month over the same period last year, the eighth year-on-year rise in a row.

Financial hub Shanghai implemented measures to tighten approval criteria for non-resident home buyers and ban unregulated lending on March 25 after prices in February jumped 21 per cent over a year ago. Officials said profit-chasing couples were faking divorce to circumvent buying restrictions.

In Shenzhen, regulators raised deposit requirements for some buyers after prices shot up by 57 per cent in the same period - the fastest growth in home prices worldwide.

And in a sign that the tightening measures are spreading, Nanjing, a second-tier city in eastern Jiangsu province, imposed similar measures this week.

China's housing market bottomed out in the second half of last year after slowing for more than a year and Beijing attempted to cushion the blow by cutting interest rates, downpayment requirements and property transaction taxes.

Though the measures were to help smaller cities, it was the big cities that drew the bulk of new investments. The volatility in China's currency and stock markets led to a home-buying frenzy in first-tier cities, seen as safe haven assets, sparking a sharp rebound in prices and now fears of overheating.

The smaller cities remain saddled with huge inventories, even though falling prices are beginning to stabilise. Experts say this diverging trend highlights the complex regulatory challenges in China, already mired in a painful economic slowdown.

Containing the amount of borrowings must be a priority even as Beijing gives local authorities more freedom to tackle the problem.

The recent cooling measures implemented by local governments are likely to be a "turning point" for property policies in big cities, Commerzbank AG's economist Zhou Hao wrote in a note, as China now has a more dynamic approach instead of a one-size-fits-all one.

But coming just months after China's stock market crashed, runaway home prices in big cities are causing fears of a bubble.

Still, economist Chen Long from Gavekal Dragonomics believes the broad-based recovery in real estate provides an upside for the economy, at least for the short term.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'China lands itself a property headache'. Print Edition | Subscribe