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China rate cut is cold comfort for struggling developers

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Property developers, among China's most heavily leveraged companies, will get a negligible lift from the country's first benchmark interest rate cut in two years as sales slip and banks pull back on lending to the sector.

After a long bull run, China's property market, which makes up about 15 percent of its economy and is the main driver of demand in some 40 industries from cement to steel, has grappled with soft prices and mounting inventories for at least six months.

That prompted China's central bank to cut its benchmark lending rates by 40 basis points to 5.6 percent on Nov. 21, reversing in part its drive to cool a sector that many feared had become so bloated by speculative froth that it was crowding out other forms of investment.

But the lowering of the lending benchmark will bring only marginal relief to the sector's biggest headaches - too much unsold stock and tight liquidity.

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"The fundamental problem of China's housing market is over-supply," said Ding Zuyu, co-president of real estate services firm E-House China, and a few home buyers encouraged by the rate cut wouldn't change that.

New home prices in China dropped for a seventh consecutive month in November from the previous month, a survey by the China Real Estate Index System (CREIS) showed.

The force of the cut will also be enfeebled because bank lending to the property sector is in decline, having dropped 23.3 percent in the third quarter from the previous three months, Reuters calculations from central bank data showed.

"The impact on property will be limited because for developers, funding access is more critical than borrowing cost," said Su Aik Lim, Fitch Ratings analyst.

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"Even if interest cost falls, access to borrowing is poor, so weak developers still cannot avoid a liquidity crisis when their sales slow." Standard & Poor's said this week liquidity was a key risk for some developers, while forecasting a 5 percent fall in average selling prices in 2015.

Moody's expects residential property sales to shrink between 0 and 5 percent, too.

All of which will make banks yet more wary about lending to the weaker players, which leaves them ever more reliant on their ability to keep generating cash.

"The biggest most reliable source of funding is property sales; it is more important to boost sales than obtaining more construction loans," said David Ng, property analyst with Macquarie Securities.

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Larger players, such as Vanke, Country Garden, China Overseas and Shimao Property, have already been increasing their asset turnover in a bid to improve cash flows, taking market share from the smaller fry.

Fitch estimates that the share of the top five developers, based on accumulated sales, has risen to 11 percent in September from 8 percent in end-2013, which also gives them bigger elbows in the scrum for financing.

"Banks are lending to companies that can sell faster, so they get their money back quickly and renew their loans more comfortably," said Ng.

That virtuous circle for the most successful becomes increasingly vicious for the strugglers as sales growth remains in the doldrums.

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"From the demand side - the rate cut will not stimulate demand sufficiently for cities that face oversupply," said Lim.

He added that lower interest costs would be of only slim benefit to even the most indebted builders.

"From the borrowers' perspective, interest expense accounts for only 5 percent of home selling price; the impact from a 40 bps cut will only cut interest expenses by about 6-7 percent, or around 0.3 percent of selling price."

It's a point not lost on apartment hunters like Li, a 37-year-old finance professional who would like a second home in Beijing.

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"Compared with the huge amount for a housing down payment, what's the use of the moderate rate cut?" she said.