Real Estate Woes Spread to China

China has joined the United States, Britain, Spain and others on the list of nations suffering a real estate decline.

Although the last national statistics showed single-digit growth from July 2007 to July 2008 in the average price of commercial and residential real estate, real estate brokers say prices are down from peaks reached earlier this year, while the number of transactions has plunged.

This downturn comes as the growth rate of Chinese exports has slowed — sharply in yuan terms — and stock markets have plummeted. The confluence of events has resulted in what economists describe as a deceleration in China’s economic growth — although at nearly 10 percent it remains the envy of many nations.

Brokers say that sales volumes first dropped precipitously here in southeastern China, and then the decline spread across the country. Faced with few buyers, sellers started cutting their prices for residential and commercial real estate.


In some neighborhoods in the southeast, prices have dropped by 10 to 40 percent.

In other parts of the country, transactions have fallen, but prices have only started to follow. For instance, the number of home sales has plunged by two-thirds in Harbin in the northeast, though prices are down as little as 4 percent from the same period last year.

“People are thinking more carefully and taking much longer before they decide to buy or not to buy property,” said Hwang Sha, a real estate broker in Xiamen in east-central China.

Cities deep in China’s interior are least affected. Dan Yian, a real estate agent in Chongqing, the largest city in southwestern China, said that the volume of housing transactions there had slowed by 20 to 30 percent so far this year. But prices have not yet fallen from a stable level of $730 a square meter, or 10.76 square feet, which works out to nearly $66,000 for a typical apartment of about 970 square feet.

Export-dependent coastal cities in mainland China have had the steepest downturns in their real estate markets. Some of those problems are starting to make ripples elsewhere in Asia.

Freddy Wu, the chief executive of Hong Kong Property Services, said his real estate agency had seen mainland investors default in recent months on a tenth of their purchases of Hong Kong apartments, forfeiting the down payments that they made.

“A lot of investors from China have their cash tied up in the mainland stock market and in mainland real estate, so they would rather take a loss now,” instead of being forced to sell mainland investments at a loss to come up with the cash to complete purchases in Hong Kong, Mr. Wu said.

The skylines of Chinese cities remain dotted with cranes. But Ralph J. Gerson, the executive vice president of Guardian Industries, the largest American glass-making company and the world’s third-largest, said that demand was rising less rapidly in China for the company’s high-tech insulated glass for modern office buildings.

“It used to be booming, and now it’s growing at a slower pace,” he said. Fresh evidence of broader economic problems in China came on Wednesday as the government released monthly statistics. Growth in imports and in fixed-asset investments slowed. Inflation dropped sharply at the consumer level, to 4.9 percent in August from 6.3 percent in July.

But unlike the subprime meltdown in the United States, and the resulting credit crisis, weaknesses in China’s real estate market do not at this point appear to pose a threat to the vitality or stability of the financial system.

One reason is that Chinese banks require down payments of at least 30 percent, giving banks an ample cushion of cash against losses. American banks frequently did not require down payments. Foreclosures are also rare here, and many Chinese still pay cash for their homes, particularly in rural areas.

Leo Wah, a Chinese banking analyst for Moody’s, said that Chinese banks could weather the decline in real estate prices, but cautioned that they could face more challenges if economic troubles spread.

“We do not believe that it would cause a serious problem, but if property prices fall some more, it won’t be the only sector that has problems,” he said.

“It’s collapsing; it’s unbelievable, and most of it is from mortgages"

Real estate difficulties pose a dilemma for China’s leaders because they coincide with a two-thirds drop in share prices on the Shanghai stock market since the market’s high last October. The two together could produce a negative effect, causing Chinese consumers to feel poorer and to reduce spending.

The most recent national data from the government shows that the average price for all residential and commercial real estate was 7 percent higher in July than a year earlier. But brokers across China say that within that period, prices peaked in many markets — either at the end of last year or at various times this year — and have slid since. The stocks of real estate developers have plunged, too. China Vanke, the country’s biggest publicly traded developer, reported on Tuesday that its sales had plummeted in August by 35 percent from a year earlier.

The real estate decline is affecting ordinary Chinese, too. Perhaps most consequential is the emerging view, apparent on blogs and in interviews, that apartments and houses, like shares on the declining Shanghai stock market, are no longer a certain path to prosperity.

Lin Bin, a 48-year-old insurance saleswoman who lives in Guangzhou, said the 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment she bought here in 2002 was still worth more than she paid in 2002. But she said she had lost two-thirds of the $4,400 she put into the stock market a year ago and worried that the housing market might be next.

“I’m not contemplating buying a second home as an investment because I hear that stock market and housing prices will continue to fall through next year,” she said while shopping recently.

Part of the problem is a severe credit squeeze. Through last winter, China’s central bank repeatedly raised the amount of capital it required Chinese commercial banks to deposit with it. The goal was to slow bank lending and control inflation. The commercial banks responded by continuing to lend to big corporate customers, most of them state-owned or at least state-controlled, while reining in other lending.

Central bank data shows that total loans to households plummeted by a third from March to July of this year. The bulk of these loans are mortgages because Chinese shoppers, even car buyers, use mostly cash.

“It’s collapsing; it’s unbelievable, and most of it is from mortgages — I don’t see how the housing sector is going at all,” said Nicholas R. Lardy, a specialist in Chinese finance at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

He added that the decline was so precipitous that it had to reflect weaker demand for housing, and not just regulatory restrictions on credit.

To increase lending may be difficult now. The central bank needs ever greater reserves from commercial banks to buy dollars and prevent China’s currency from rising against the dollar, which could cause China’s exports to slow further.

China’s trade surplus set a record of $28.7 billion in August, the government announced on Wednesday, mainly because of an unexpected slowdown in the growth of imports. Slower growth of imports is a common sign of a weakening economy.

Assessing national trends in Chinese real estate is often difficult because of long lags in the data. Real estate brokers say prices are holding up better for homes in prime locations than in outlying areas. Top-quality commercial buildings are faring better than older buildings.