Bloomberg News

China’s Squeeze on Property Market Nearing ‘Tipping Point’

September 23, 2011

(Updates with land prices in eighth paragraph)

Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The squeeze on China’s property market may be reaching a “tipping point” that drives growth lower just when exports are under threat from a global slowdown and investor confidence is plunging, said Zhang Zhiwei, Hong Kong-based chief China economist at Nomura Holdings Inc.

Land transactions in 133 cities tracked by Soufun Holdings Ltd., the country’s biggest real-estate website, fell 14 percent by area in August from a month earlier. Prices of new homes declined in 16 of 70 cities last month compared with July, according to government data.

Property construction is a mainstay of investment that last year drove more than a half of economic growth while land sales contributed 40 percent of revenues earned by local authorities that have amassed 10.7 trillion yuan ($1.67 trillion) of debt. A funding squeeze on developers risks a “domino effect” as companies needing cash cut prices, forcing others to follow, Credit Suisse Group AG said yesterday.

“We’re reaching a tipping point where land sales are dropping much faster than before, developers are losing more access to bank financing, and housing prices are showing weakness,” Nomura’s Zhang said in an interview in Beijing yesterday.

The People’s Bank of China has raised interest rates five times over the past year, curbed lending to property developers and raised down payments on home loans as part of Premier Wen Jiabao’s campaign to rein in surging consumer and property prices. The government has also limited purchases of housing in cities where gains have been deemed excessive.

Loan Approval Withdrawn

Real-estate development accounted for a fifth of China’s urban fixed-asset investment last year, government data show.

Shanghai-based Shui On Land Ltd. had a loan approval from a Chinese bank withdrawn after the lender changed its policy, Vincent Lo, the company’s billionaire chairman, said in a Sept. 13 interview. Cancellations by that bank, which he wouldn’t name, are “happening quite frequently” to other developers, he said, adding that the credit squeeze may slow property development.

The price of land in Beijing slumped 76 percent in August from a month earlier, while in Guangzhou it plummeted 53 percent, according to Soufun. Land auction failures surged 242 percent in the first seven months of this year because of government curbs on the property market, the Beijing Times reported Aug. 3.

Debt Servicing Difficulties

The decline may make it more difficult for some of the thousands of companies set up by local governments to service debts taken on to fund infrastructure investment. China Real Estate Information Corp., a Shanghai-based property information and consulting firm, estimates 40 percent of overall local government revenue came from land sales last year.

In a sign financing vehicles in some provinces are struggling, the auditor of northeast Liaoning province estimated in July that about 85 percent of such companies in the region had insufficient income last year to cover all their debt servicing payments.

Some developers have turned to trust firms for financing, usually in the form of loans that are repackaged into investment products and sold to retail investors. The debt is typically funded by banks or investors themselves, according to Samsung Securities Asia Ltd.

Many real-estate companies have received about half of their new financing from trust firms over the past year, according to Jinsong Du, an analyst with Credit Suisse in Hong Kong. New bank lending to property developers in the second quarter of this year sank to 42 billion yuan from 169 billion yuan in the first quarter, he said, citing central bank data.

Stocks Drop

Shares in China property companies slumped yesterday on concern tightened access to loans will force them to cut prices. Greentown China Holdings Ltd. plunged 16 percent in Hong Kong, the most in almost three years, and was 6.5 percent lower at HK$4.20 at 3:34 p.m. today.

Greentown, the largest builder in the eastern province of Zhejiang, yesterday denied media reports the banking regulator ordered trust companies to provide details of their business dealings with the company and its units.

The China Banking Regulatory Commission is looking into financing of developers through trust companies as part of a broader evaluation of real-estate lending, a person familiar with the matter said today. The inquiries are part of regular monitoring and aren’t targeting any particular company, said the person, who declined to be identified because the regulator’s queries were meant to be private.

The “possibility of developers defaulting on debt has definitely increased and towards the end of the year that’s pretty likely,” Du said in a telephone interview yesterday.

‘Tip of the Iceberg’

Developer Dalian Rightway Real Estate entered preliminary restructuring talks with lenders after missing a loan repayment, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper reported Sept. 9, citing three unidentified people involved in the situation.

Funding problems are just “the tip of the iceberg” and “sharp declines in property sales and prices are likely in the next two to three months,” said Shen Jianguang, an economist at Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd. in Hong Kong.

Premier Wen reiterated this month that stabilizing consumer prices remains the government’s top priority and that the direction of government policies won’t change. The slowdown in economic growth is “within expectations,” he said.

Too Complacent

Consumer-price increases in August slowed to 6.2 percent from a year earlier, down from a three-year high of 6.5 percent the previous month. Economists at Citigroup, Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd. and Macquarie Securities Ltd. say inflation probably peaked in July.

Policy makers may be too complacent about the economy’s performance, Mizuho’s Shen said, pointing to the deteriorating outlook for exports as Europe’s debt crisis deepens and the U.S. risks slipping back into recession.

The International Monetary Fund this week cut its forecasts for global expansion this year and next and said downside risks to growth are rising.

In signs China’s economy is cooling, a preliminary index of purchasing managers released yesterday by HSBC Holdings Plc and Markit Economics showed manufacturing may shrink for a third month in September, the longest contraction since 2009, as measures of export orders and output decline.

“The risk of China replaying the hard landing of 2008 is increasing as the property sector cools and exports weaken,” Shen said. “ I fear that once the real economy deteriorates and officials do loosen policies, it will already be too late.”

--Kevin Hamlin, Li Yanping, Lifei Zheng. Editors: Nerys Avery, Paul Panckhurst

To contact the Bloomberg News staff on this story: Kevin Hamlin in Beijing on khamlin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Panckhurst at ppanckhurst@bloomberg.net


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