HONG KONG, Sept 18 (Reuters Breakingviews) – Chinese developers are in trouble. Many are struggling to stay afloat as both financing and sales dry up. Why don’t they simply slash prices and sell down their bloated inventory? Well, they can’t. Restrictions imposed after the last property crisis in 2016 were intended to contain runaway home prices. Those limits endured and are now obstructing a recovery in the world’s second largest economy.
“Guidance” set by local governments helped officials to achieve price stability. Average new home prices in the 70 major cities, per official data, have fluctuated around just 2% on a monthly basis for more than a year even as top developers wrestle to restructure their debt. Evergrande (3333.HK) and Country Garden (2007.HK) alone have combined liabilities worth 3.8 trillion yuan ($524 billion).
Yet the restrictions hid distortions. When the mood was bullish, price caps in major cities were far below what people were willing to pay. Crowds of buyers typically flocked to project launches. Those who were lucky enough to be allocated a new apartment could then flip it for a handsome profit in the limited secondary market.
That’s one reason many Chinese viewed caps as a “subsidy” for prospective homeowners. Fast forward, and these controlled prices are much higher than the perceived market value. Some developers have tried to work around the problem, by offering homebuyers “discounts” including car parking lots or even gold bars. Home sales last year fell 27% to return to 2017 level, per National Bureau of Statistics, and sales this year are on course to be worse.
Scrapping the price caps would be a cleaner fix and officials are weighing up such a move, Reuters reported this month. The Guangzhou government has already quietly abandoned its seven-year-old policy in regulating new home prices, according to Caixin, a financial publication. Hard up developers will be able to start generating much-needed cash if more cities follow. Take Country Garden, it had a 202 million square metre landbank at the end of 2022, including 3,000 projects under construction. How quickly it can monetise some of those assets ultimately depends on how attractive the selling prices are.
A price slump would spur demand but the government would need to brave enormous fallout. Existing owners will be unhappy to see the value of their homes tumble: China’s homeownership rate reached 90% by 2020, and real estate accounts for 70% of household wealth. In a weak economy, it is unclear where an undistorted price will settle. Still, finding the bottom of the market looks crucial to any property market revival.
China’s Guangzhou city has cancelled price caps on new residential projects, Caixin reported on Sept. 12. Developers still need to share their planned selling prices with authorities but regulators will no longer provide price guidance, the financial publication said.
Price caps of various kinds were introduced in many Chinese cities from 2016 following the central government’s call for a stable residential market.
Editing by Una Galani and Thomas Shum
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