IN CHINA, property prices can keep going up forever. At least, that is what optimists seem to think. They point out that the country is undergoing the largest urbanisation in history. The throngs of migrants from the countryside all need homes, the argument runs. China’s swelling middle classes, many of whom live in shoddy 1980s housing, are also eagerly moving to fancier flats or McMansions. The result has been a spectacular property boom over the past decade.
At first glance, it seems the good times are still rolling (see chart). During the first three quarters of this year residential sales shot up by 35% versus the same period a year ago. Prices for new homes rose year-on-year in September in 69 of the 70 biggest cities. In Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing prices jumped by more than 20%; in slightly smaller cities, such as Nanjing and Xiamen, they rose by around 15%.
Despite these signs of rude health, even some of China’s biggest property moguls appear to be growing uneasy. Wang Shi, the chairman of China Vanke, the country’s largest residential-property firm by volume, has called the market a bubble. Wang Jianlin, the country’s richest man and the chairman of Dalian Wanda, a property giant turned entertainment firm, acknowledges that parts of the country may be experiencing a property bubble, though he thinks it “controllable”. Li Ka-Shing, a Hong Kong tycoon who has long been bullish on China, has started to sell his mainland holdings.
The problem is not the wealthiest cities with the most vertiginous valuations. Indeed, in those markets prices may yet go higher. People from all over China buy trophy apartments in Shanghai and Beijing, making their markets as resilient as those of Manhattan and central London. In fact, policies aimed at squelching speculation may be artificially suppressing demand in those places.
Shanghai and Shenzhen recently followed Beijing’s lead by requiring that buyers of second homes put up 70% of the purchase price as a deposit. In Beijing, the sale of a second home incurs a 20% capital-gains tax. (This is supposedly a nationwide policy, but is not always enforced in other cities.) Couples with two homes are reportedly divorcing to avoid the tax, since once officially single they can each own a primary residence, and thus sell either one without penalty.
Demand does not look so robust, however, in places like Yingkou Coastal Industrial Base, in north-eastern China. This development was promoted by the local government as a future hub of economic activity, but the future has not yet arrived. There are rows of empty buildings and few people on the streets. Property salesmen claim that big companies ranging from Coca-Cola to PetroChina are building factories nearby. But even Xinhua, an official media outlet, is sceptical: except for street lamps and the occasional passing vehicle, it reported recently, “at night the base was completely dark.”
Many property developments outside the big cities appear to be ghost towns of this sort. Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, laments that a large and rising share of new supply has gone to smaller cities. People’s Daily, another official organ, recently fulminated against the “huge waste of resources” such construction represents. Nonetheless, by the government’s count, 144 cities in 12 provinces are planning 200 new towns.