China’s property market is at risk of an overcorrection, not oversupply

Apr 12, 2024
Unique lighting house sign in group of houses. Real estate property industry concept background. 3d illustration

There is no risk of China’s property sector woes spreading into a financial crisis but there is a policy-induced housing crisis and restrictions must be further eased. The property market must be stabilised to restore public confidence and spur private consumption, so economic growth can reaccelerate.

A Chinese former official made headlines last September by saying that China had so many vacant homes that even its 1.4 billion population cannot hope to fill them all. Estimates suggested there were enough vacant properties to house as many as 3 billion people.

If true, China’s housing market is doomed. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the market’s demise are an exaggeration.

According to the national statistics bureau, China has built 14.4 billion square metres (155 billion square feet) of saleable homes – excluding self-built homes such as in rural areas – over the past 30 years. In 2020, the per capita urban living space was 38.6 square metres, meaning that in three decades, China had built enough housing for 370 million people, just 40 per cent of its urban population of 920 million. How many empty homes can there be?

There are two signs of significant oversupply in residential markets, according to economist Gao Shanwen, who based his work on data from economies including Japan and the United States.

The first is a prolonged contraction in transactions for resale homes. But in China last year, according to Beike Research Institute, resale home transactions surged, rising by 44 per cent in terms of floor space sold and by 30 per cent in transaction value.

The second is when investments in residential property development represent more than 7 per cent of a country’s gross domestic product. In China, this ratio hit about 12 per cent in 2013 but has fallen since, and is expected to be around 5.5 per cent this year.

Therefore, Gao concludes, while there is a significant overcorrection in China’s residential property development sector, there is no oversupply in the housing market. The market correction has been so severe it has tipped over into an overcorrection.

China’s housing crisis isn’t over.

Even though overall home sales rose last year, by 6.3 per cent in floor space and 5.8 per cent in value, sales of new homes slumped by 8.2 per cent in floor space and 6 per cent in value. This is because developers are prohibited from selling new homes below certain prices, presumably to protect property values. Consequently, developers may not be able to offer new homes at market-clearing prices.

As of the end of last year, China’s home price index has slid 9 per cent from its 2021 peak, creating a “negative wealth” effect that is dampening consumption and slowing down the economy’s transition from being investment-led to consumption-driven.

Meanwhile, many Chinese property developers are mired in financial difficulty or insolvency. Bankruptcies of property companies almost quintupled from 123 in 2022 to 590 last year. Defaults or the restructurings of offshore bonds issued by Chinese developers are more the rule than the exception.

Will China’s housing sector woes lead to a financial crisis like in the US and Europe in 2008? The answer is no, for three reasons.

First, the average loan-to-value ratio of home mortgages in China’s major cities is about 50 per cent, which means that housing prices will have to fall by more than half to put mortgages at risk. That is not even remotely likely, and the ratio of non-performing housing loans among Chinese banks remains below 1 per cent, according to ratings agency S&P.

Second, home loans are unlimited personal liabilities in China, so homeowners cannot simply walk away from them as one can in the US. So defaults are rare.

Third, banks’ exposure to developers represents less than 5 per cent of their loan book, all of which is collateralised. Chinese banks are well-capitalised, with an average capital adequacy ratio of more than 15 per cent, and an average non-performing loan ratio of about 1.6 per cent.

Yes, non-performing loans have been rising in recent years. But banks are selling or writing them off quickly because the regulatory requirement for reserves to cover non-performing loans is more than 100 per cent, making such debt not worth holding on to.

Indeed, China’s banking system faces a unique problem of having too much cash. Household deposits increased by 18 trillion yuan (US$2.5 trillion) in 2022 and a further 17 trillion yuan last year as consumers continue to hold back.

But the housing crisis continues to retard China’s economic recovery. The property sector’s contribution to gross domestic growth was a negative 4 per cent in 2022. The good news is that this recovered to a negative 1.3 per cent last year and is expected to further improve to a negative 0.9 per cent this year, according to UBS.

Graph supplied

The prevailing view of China’s property market is that the housing crisis was inevitable, driven by the bursting of a property bubble and the immutable laws of supply and demand. In fact, it was largely policy-induced, as the government took measures to cool down the overheated sector by limiting purchases and controlling prices, mortgages and credit to developers.

The tightening in recent years has become so draconian as to choke the air out of the property market. Many of these cooling policies continue to suppress demand. For example, Chinese can buy properties around the world but not in some major Chinese cities unless they are residents buying their primary home. Where else do policymakers handle a housing crisis by limiting home purchases?

The latent demand for housing is substantial. Chinese have always considered residential properties the most preferred asset class to invest in. Whereas in the US, residential properties represent only about 25 per cent of household wealth, this ratio is about 59 per cent in China.

China is on track to increase its urbanisation rate from around 65 per cent now to 73 per cent by 2035, which will add more than 100 million people to the urban population – all of whom require housing.

To avoid prolonged pain, it is advisable to remove all remaining restrictions on housing prices and demand, allowing the market to adjust itself and find its footing. Hong Kong set a good example by doing so in February, which immediately sparked a surge in property transactions. It is only by stabilising the property market that public confidence can be restored, private consumption can resume and economic growth can reaccelerate.

Republished from South China Morning Post on April 3, 2024.

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