Back in March, we explained why the “fate of the world economy is in the hands of China’s housing bubble.” The answer was simple: for the Chinese population, and growing middle class, to keep spending vibrant and borrowing elevated, it had to feel comfortable and confident that its wealth will keep rising. However, unlike the US where the stock market is the ultimate barometer of the confidence boosting “wealth effect”, in China it has always been about housing: three quarters of Chinese household assets are parked in real estate, compared to only 28% in the US with the remainder invested financial assets.
Beijing knows this, of course, which is why China periodically and consistently reflates its housing bubble, hoping that the popping of the bubble, which happened in late 2011 and again in 2014, will be a controlled, “smooth landing” process.
The other reason why China is so eager to keep its housing sector inflated – and risk bursting bubbles – is that as shown in the chart below, in 2016 the rise of property prices boosted household wealth in 37 tier 1 and tier 2 cities by RMB24 trillion, almost twice the total local disposable income of RMB12.9 trillion. For any Fed readers out there, that’s how you create a wealth effect, fake as it may be.
Unfortunately for China, whose record credit creation in 2017, and certainly in the months leading up to the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress which started last week, has been the primary catalyst for the “global coordinated growth”, the good times are now again over, and according to the latest real estate data released last week, property sales in China dropped for the first time since March 2015, or more than two-and-half years, in September and housing starts slowed sharply reinforcing concerns that robust growth in the world’s second-largest economy is starting to cool.
Property sales by floor area fell 1.5% in September from a year earlier, compared with a 4.3% increase in August and a 34% jump in September 2016, according to Reuters calculations based on official data released on Thursday. That marked the first annual decline since the start of 2015. Separately, new construction starts by floor area, a volatile but telling indicator of developers’ confidence, rose just 1.4% in September on-year, slowing from a 5.3% increase in August, according to Reuters calculations.
“The negative September sale number shows that, unequivocally, the property boom has peaked,” Rosealea Yao, a property analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics told Reuters. “We have seen some big rebounds at the end of the first and second quarter, but given how fast the sale numbers are declining, we expect no big rebound this time.”
Echoing our concerns above, Reuters writes that “real estate, which directly affects 40 other business sectors in China, is a crucial driver for the economy but also poses a major risk as Beijing looks to tame soaring home prices without triggering a crash or a sharp drop in construction activity.
The easing in property activity appeared to drag on broader growth in the third quarter, and as many economists predicted China’s GDP rose 6.8% in the third quarter from a year earlier, down from 6.9% in the second quarter. And while property investment did rise 9.2% in September, picking up pace from an expansion of 7.8 percent in August, analysts warned such investment usually lags sales trends by up to six months.
Still, as discussed here previously, while home prices have sharply softened in China’s biggest, Tier-1, cities in recent months in response to a flurry of government cooling measures, property bubbles are still a threat in other parts of the country.
Moreover, in addition to many buyers purchasing second houses on credit as Deutsche Bank pointed out last month, high prices are forcing many home buyers to take on more debt, weighing on future household consumption and leaving banks more exposed to any property downturn even as Beijing looks to rein in financial system risks. Household loans, mostly mortgages, rose to 734.9 billion yuan ($110.80 billion) in September from 663.5 billion yuan in August, despite rising mortgage rates, according to Reuters calculations. Short-term loans also soared in the third quarter, suggesting speculators may be trying to circumvent property cooling measures, economists said.
What is most concerning, however, is that the recent sharp decline takes place even as policymakers have made stabilizing the overheated property market a top priority ahead of a critical Communist Party Congress this week, reiterating the need to avoid dramatic price swings which they fear could threaten the financial system and harm social stability.
Adn while a downward inflection point in China’s housing market – which accounts for a third of China’s economic growth – is bad, what follows is far worse.
According to a fascinating new WSJ report, China’s housing downturn is likely far worse than meets the eye, as under Beijing’s direction more than 200 cities across China for the last three years have been buying surplus apartments from property developers and moving in families from condemned city blocks and nearby villages. China’s Housing Ministry, which is behind the purchases, said it plans to continue the program through 2020. The strategy, supported by central-government bank lending, has rescued housing developers and lifted the property market,
As the WSJ notes, this latest backdoor bailout “It is a sharp illustration of China’s economy under President Xi Jinping and the economic challenges he will face as he renews his 5-year term at a twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress that opens on Wednesday.”
Rosealea Yao from Gavekal Dragonomics, who was also quoted above, wrote that “the government’s creativity in coming up with new ways of supporting the housing market is impressive—but it’s also an indication that it still depends on housing for growth.“
While traditionally, China’s government used to build homes for families who lost theirs to development or decay, last year, local governments, from the northeast rust belt to the city of Bengbu with 3.7 million amid the croplands of central Anhui province, spent more than $100 billion to buy housing from developers or subsidize purchases, according to Gavekal Dragonomics.
In other words, the reason why China no longer has ghost cities is because the government is buying them in just as concerning, “ghostly” transcations.
The underlying structure is yet another typically-Chinese ponzi scheme:
Underpinning the strategy is a cycle of debt. Cities borrow from state banks for purchases and subsidies, then sell more land to developers to repay the loans. As developers build more housing, they, too, accrue more debt, setting up the state to bail them out again. The burden on the state rises, as does the risk of collapse.
What is astounring, is that while the government has tried other ways of filling apartments, such as offering cash subsidies to encourage rural migrants to buy in urban areas, the program is the first large-scale case of the government becoming a home buyer itself. In May, Lu Kehua, China’s deputy housing minister, said the program has “played a positive role in steady economic growth,” and called for a push to clear housing inventory as early as possible, according to an article by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Well, of course, it’s played a “positive role” – when the government itself is buying half the units it bought (see chart above), what can possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything if the housing market is once again headed lower and with the explicit backing and funding of the Chinese government.
Some more fascinating details on how China fooled the world into believing back in 2014 that its recently burst housing bubble had “smoothly landed” and was again recovering:
Three years ago, Bengbu’s housing prices were falling. Housing inventory in 2014 would have taken almost five years to fill at the pace of sales at the time, said Shanghai-based research firm E-House China R&D Institute. Around the same time, the Bengbu government began to gobble up homes, and it has continued to do so. The city said it bought nearly 6,000 apartments from developers last year.
Housing stock in Bengbu was down to four months in September, a city official overseeing the government program said in September. Home prices had increased by 15% in August from a year earlier. That exceeded the 8.2% growth across a benchmark of 70 cities compiled by the national statistics agency.
Beijing and Shanghai residents are used to such price surges, but it is unusual in a smaller Chinese city lacking any particular tourism or job-market appeal.
Naturally, China would rather not have details of its latest bailout program spread too far:
Bengbu officials are wary about publicizing its hand in the market for fear of driving up prices and speculative buying. “We don’t mention it as much now as in the past two years,” the city official in charge of the program said. “Prices have been fluctuating a lot, and it’s a little bit out of control.”
Since the launch of the program, which is an explicit subsidy to Chinese real-estate developers who are directly selling to the government, things have predictably normalized. In fact, the outcome has been a little too frothy:
In 2015, groups of families on government-organized apartment tours started showing up, said Ding Qian, a planner at the developer, Bengbu Mingyuan Real Estate Development. By October 2016, the developer had sold 20 blocks of finished apartments, about 10% of them paid for with government funds, Ms. Ding said.
“We have run out of apartments to sell,” she said. The developer has sped up construction of 42 new blocks, about 4,000 apartments, and has raised prices by 40%.
All thanks to the government, which is lending to local governments to avoid the impression it is directly involved in bailing out China’s “wealth effect”:
The Bengbu official in charge of the program declined to disclose details about the city’s apartment purchases, but said the city had borrowed 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) of the 19 billion yuan of available credit extended by China Development Bank for housing purchases and subsidies.
Local governments in 2016 borrowed 972.5 billion yuan from the bank, the government’s main housing lender, nine times the level three years earlier, according to E-House China R&D Institute, which compiled data from official bank and government websites. More than half of last year’s loans went to purchases or subsidized buying, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The rest of the loans funded housing projects built by the government.
What is most firghtening, is that despite the decline in property sales, the government’s role in the housing market continues to grow according to the WSJ, and here is a stunning statistic: Of all the residential floor space sold in China last year, 18% was purchased by government entities or with state subsidies, E-House China determined from official government data. The share could reach 24% this year, the firm said.
To paraphrase: Beijing is now the (covert) marginal buyer of a quarter of all Chinese real estate. That, in itself, is a mindblowing statistic. What is scarier, is that despite this implicit backstop, property sales are once again declining after 30 months of increases. One can only imagine the epic crash that would ensure at this moment, if – for some reason – the government bid were to be pulled, and just how spectacular the ensuing global depression would be as the rug is pulled from below the middle class of the world’s fastest growing economy.