Saturday, May 7, 2011

Beijing housing shortage

Typical Danwei-type housing for middle classes

Luxury housing for upper classes

Beijing is one of those boom towns that suffers from a severely constricted housing supply, despite valiant state planning efforts. Whether in a centrally planned economy or an exclusively market-driven economy, though, this is a natural occurrence that comes from rapid economic growth. Rapid growth is hard to plan for, although China has been known to build residential communities in anticipation of growth, sometimes prematurely, such as the Zhengzhou New District.

The Government is encouraging both public and private housing development in an effort to solve the housing shortage. The “which is better, Communist or capitalist housing solutions?” debate was answered a generation ago by Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s second successor and architect of the modern Chinese economic miracle, who quoted a Szechwan proverb that it matters not whether a cat is black or white; if it can catch mice, then it is a good cat. This saying particularly resounds with me, as I have a black and white cat that catches numerous rodents, brings them into the house, and then forgets to kill them. Not a good cat.

"Chairman Meow" - Feline founder of a rodent "catch and release" program -- caught outdoors, then released into the Martin household. In debating communist vs. capitalist solutions to solve housing needs, Deng Xiaoping quoted a Szechuan proverb that it matters not whether a cat is black or white; if it can catch a mouse, it is a good cat. Deng may have been right about many things, but wrong about my cat. Both black and white and catches mice, but fails to kill them. Not "a good cat". Realistically -- is this the face of a mouse-killer?

High housing prices and rents

A joint Wharton/National University of Singapore study found that housing prices increased by 225% in the last 8 years and Beijing land prices increased by 800%.

There are anecdotal reports that Beijing housing prices average 27 times annual household income. Unlike in the Western world, mortgage loans are limited to no more than 50% of value; nevertheless, additional leverage is often obtained from close relatives.

In an American city, housing prices at 27 times annual household income would be a precursor of a bubble waiting to burst, but only because American housing purchases have become highly leveraged investments in which the homeowner can quickly owe more than the house is worth, incentivizing the homeowner to walk away from his home via foreclosure, short sale, or deed in lieu of foreclosure. It’s harder for a Chinese homeowner to walk away from substantial equity or loan obligations to family members.

The Chinese housing model is less dependent upon leverage, while the family residence is considered to be the most secure asset a family can own. This environment also attracts speculators, which the Government continues to try to quell with new policies to curb housing price inflation, most recently tne "Eight National Measures" whose policies include 1) no bank financing for third home purchases, 2) minimum cash down payments of 30% for first home purchases and 60% for second home purchases, and 3) restricting home sales to only "registered residents".

The hukou system classifies citizens by their place of origin, thus limiting their mobility or restricting the right to services in the cities they move to. Preferential treatment is extended to "registered residents". It creates an almost apartheid system pitting rural vs. urban residents. The hukou system of classifying residents limits home purchases in cities with housing shortages to "registered residents" or "migrant residents" who can establish that they have lived and paid taxes in the city for at least 5 years. ("Migrant residents" have become marginalized similarly to illegal aliens in American and British societies.)

The sale of homes held less than 5 years is also taxed. The Central Bank has also raised bank reserve requirements 16 times over the last year and a half to rein in bank lending. Reserves are now required to be 21.5% of deposits.

Residential rental property investments are also priced very high, with sales prices reflecting annual gross rent multipliers exceeding 40 -- even higher than in Singapore or Hong Kong.

The China Daily reports a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that property prices in Beijing and Shanghai are 30 to 50% above market value. Their definition of market value obviously differs from that of other countries, as "market value" usually represents the price that a property would sell for under ordinary arm's length conditions, a definition commonly used in the U.S. The idea that everything is selling at above market value suggests a different definition of market value than held in the U.S.

With the Beijing housing shortage, the renter is in a particularly difficult position. One computer graphic designer explained to me that he pays about 70% of his monthly income on rent for his Beijing apartment, a rent equivalent to about $1000 USD per month, double what he was paying 5 years ago. He explains that recent college graduates often form groups of 6 or even 8 to rent one apartment, dividing the living room into individual living units.

Those who might consider Beijing housing prices to be a bubble, should take note that most bubbles collapse from falling demand or supply increases well in excess of demand, which so far does not seem to be occurring in Beijing. In American housing bubbles, one can observe that the most supply-constricted markets, such as Manhattan or San Francisco, suffer the least depreciation in economic downturns. One thing that prolongs the Chinese Bubble, too, is the lack of property taxes, which makes carrying costs low for real estate speculators. This is starting to change, now, with the cities of Shanghai and Chongqing instituting residential property taxes, with assessment rates ranging from .4% to 1.2%. This could curb speculation, although Chinese investors have few other choices of investments; Chinese stocks are considered riskier investments than housing and are down about 25% this year.

One interesting twist to the Chinese housing market is that all properties are leasehold. The residential land leases from the government are 70 years in length. As is customary with leasehold properties, improvements must be removed by the end of the lease. This creates interesting repercussions for the Chinese housing market. What happens to resale value after a few decades? Will family heirs have considerably diminished hereditary rights to housing? What resale values are possible for older homes nearing the end of their 70-year leases? It will be interesting to watch this grand housing experiment.

An answer to the overpopulation problem? -- from

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