Busting the myth of China’s property bubble

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Five years on, the US economy remains sluggish after the bursting of a house price bubble. More recently, the focus has been on China, the world’s second largest economy, and whether it too might be overwhelmed by a similar event.

Reports of “ghost cities” and some property developers facing bankruptcy have become commonplace. Some commentators have asserted that the bubble may have already “popped”.

The stakes are high. The IMF notes that since 2007, China has contributed more – much more in fact – to world growth than any other country, and this is projected to remain the case into the foreseeable future. Given that China’s construction sector is a significant source of demand for our natural resources, Australia has more to lose than most if the economy there sours.

Before commenting on the Chinese case, it is worth briefly reviewing the chain of causality in the US. From 1997, house prices in the US began to appreciate. During the 2000s, the market became increasingly infected by debt funded speculators betting on continued capital gains. In the process, banks lent money to borrowers of marginal credit worthiness requiring little or no collateral. When prices stalled and then went into sharp reverse in 2006, the banks were left holding the bag, ultimately requiring a bail out by taxpayers. Banks (and firms and households) then spent the next few years seeking to rebuild their balance sheets, as opposed to extending new loans, and this process continues today.

The above story breaks down at several points when it comes to China. What is true is that house prices in China have increased rapidly during the 2000s. That, however, is about where the similarities end.

Firstly, while recent headlines have reported that house prices in China have fallen for a fifth straight month, what we have actually seen is a levelling off in prices.

According to official data, prices nation-wide remain steady compared with a year ago and remain marginally up since 2010. Unofficial data points to stronger price growth since 2010.

Examples of more significant price declines in certain cities can be found, as they can in particular developments in a given city. But to tell a macroeconomic story based on these is to miss the forest for the trees.

To put the above numbers in perspective, last year house prices fell more in Australia than they did in China.

Secondly, there is little evidence that any deterioration in the housing market has infected the banking system. Given that nation-wide house prices have not in fact declined, this is perhaps not surprising.

There are other reasons as well. One is simply that Chinese are much more likely to fund home purchases from savings, often calling upon the assistance of family members in the process. In part this reflects cultural differences, but also strict down payment requirements imposed on borrowers by banks.

Thirdly, it should not be forgotten that the key institutions in China’s banking system remain more or less government-owned. This changes the rules of the game considerably. Standard risk management variables, such as the capital adequacy ratio – which, incidentally, is extremely high amongst Chinese banks – and the non-performing loan ratio, are only of marginal relevance because the integrity of the biggest banks is guaranteed by the government. China’s central government is willing and able to act on that guarantee. The level of public debt outstanding is modest and even when contingent liabilities are taken into account, such as debt racked upon by local governments, the prospect of China falling victim to a European style public debt crisis is remote.

Another example is that amid a deteriorating macroeconomic environment in which privately owned banks might elect to slow credit growth, the Chinese government can instruct banks to do the opposite, as was seen in 2009. This remains within the capability of the banks given the extremely high reserve requirements they maintain (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204131004577232933776226326.html).

Fourthly, in addition to continuing government ownership, there is also the fact that the banking system remains heavily regulated. For example, by fixing interest rates, the government can act to boost the margins and profits of the banks. This may be a negative from an efficiency perspective, but nonetheless can act to promote the stability of the system.

Property prices in China may well be inflated. Price to income ratios, particularly in the major cities, suggest that they are. However, for high prices to constitute a bubble, they must be able to burst. In the case of China, it is not clear that they have, nor where a trigger might come from.

More likely is that we are set to see a period of no or low price growth, rather than sharp declines. Of course, even stagnant house prices have implications for China’s overall rate of growth and therefore the demand for Australian natural resources. But as China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, recently noted, the days of average annual growth rates in excess of 10% are over. The sooner that we in Australia accept and adjust to this new reality, the better.

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