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Takeaway: The Chinese property market is likely to remain under pressure, portending negatively for both Chinese and global economic growth.

SUMMARY BULLETS:

  • The Chinese property market is likely to remain under pressure over the intermediate term, which, as a result of fixed capital formation equating to just under half of Chinese GDP, portends negatively for both Chinese and global economic growth.
  • Illiquidity on Chinese property developer balance sheets is accelerating, a phenomenon reflected in their recent actions (accelerating debt issuance), market prices for their equity and throughout broader sector data. This could spell an incremental leg down in Chinese property prices if they are broadly forced to slash prices to help clear the market.
  • Additionally, we believe the resolve of Chinese policymakers to continue combating “overly high prices” and speculative demand warrants further caution with regards to any expectations for both prices and transactions in the Chinese property market over the intermediate term.
  • We’re not currently in the camp that China is careening towards a banking crisis; we are, however, flagging the risk that a potential broad-based deterioration of credit quality across the Chinese financial system is likely to keep Chinese policymakers focused on quashing any signs of a property price bubble in a proactive,  not Western-style reactive, manner.
  • Rather than reflate now and risk an epic economic and financial market collapse at some point in not-too-distant future, Chinese policymakers are likely attempting to engineer a soft landing/smooth transition to a more sustainable growth model.

In continuing with the themes of today’s Early Look (i.e. the Manic Media and the Chinese economy), we highlight the following headline from yesterday morning:

“Chinese developers led junk bond sales in Asia to a five-month high in September as speculation the world’s second-biggest economy will ease housing curbs and boost stimulus measures caused yields to drop to a record low.” (Bloomberg)

The articles goes on to describe the recent surge in Chinese property developer international debt issuance (10x MoM to $1.15 billion) is an indication of Chinese property developers front-running a relaxation of the existing policies designed to curb speculation in China’s property market, citing Premier Jiabao’s recent statement that the curbs have achieved “obvious” results as an indication that Vice Premier Li Keqiang will be inclined to ease the measures shortly after taking control of the premiership early next year.

We couldn’t disagree more with this interpretation. From our vantage point, we view the recent acceleration of debt issuance by Chinese property developers as a function of increasing illiquidity on their balance sheets amid a slowing sales and declining price environment. Furthermore, if Chinese property developers were, in fact, gearing up for a meaningful acceleration in demand, it is unlikely that growth in Building Starts and Land Purchases would be contracting in the YTD as they are currently (i.e. they are not accelerating investments).

YTD growth in sales of buildings and floor space is trending at multi-year lows through AUG (+2.3% and -4.1% YoY, respectively):

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On our 20-City Nominal Properly Price Index, Chinese property prices came in at -4.7% YoY in AUG – the second-lowest reading in the YTD (refer to the bottom of this note for our index methodology):

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YTD growth in starts and land purchases is also trending at multi-year lows though AUG (-6.8% and -16.2% YoY, respectively):

 

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Growth in total funds in the Chinese financial system available for property development is also trending at multi-year lows in the YTD through AUG (+9.1% YoY):

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Rising illiquidity on Chinese property developer balance sheets could potentially lead to declining prices if they are broadly forced to slash prices to help clear the market. It’s worth noting that floor space under construction and floor space completed are trending up +15.6% and +20.2% in the YTD through AUG. Growth in incremental supply – both present and future – is far outpacing the growth in demand in the YTD.

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As it relates to the slope of future demand in the Chinese property market, we continue to take our cues from Chinese policymakers and the unilateral nature of China’s command economy generally means what they say goes with regards to the ebb and flow of economic activity. While front running any changes on the margin in their policy stance can be helpful from a speculative perspective, we wouldn’t recommend doing so at the expense of ignoring their repeated attempts to temper market sentiment:

  • JUL 19:  China has told its local governments to keep a firm grip on the housing market to prevent property prices from rebounding, state media reported Friday, citing an urgent government notice. "Local authorities must strictly implement the property-control policies. Don't relax the control without authorization. Those that have loosened controls must rectify the policies right away," the state-run China Securities Journal cited the notice as saying. The notice was jointly issued Thursday by the Ministry of Land Resources and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, according to the China Securities Journal, Shanghai Securities News and other state-run newspapers. (WSJ)
  • AUG 23: China’s government is studying further measures to strengthen its control of the property market, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday, citing an official with the housing ministry. The government is “closely monitoring” changes in the real estate market and has ordered local governments not to relax property controls, the unidentified official with China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development was quoted as saying in the Xinhua report. Easing policies by some local authorities were among problems that need “particular attention,” Xinhua reported on Aug. 17, citing findings from an inspection ordered by the State Council. China’s property market is expected to stay stable, the housing ministry official said in the Xinhua report. Most buyers in recent months are first-time home owners, according to the official. (Bloomberg Businessweek)
  • SEP 7: A senior official on Wednesday vowed to prevent rebounds in property prices in the second half of the year. “We will stabilize control measures to curb speculation and increase housing supplies, especially small- and mid-sized housing,” said Zhang Ping, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, in a report delivered at an ongoing bimonthly session of the national legislature. Xie pledged to promote property tax reforms on a trial basis and strictly implement differentiated taxation policies for property transactions. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has reiterated the country still needs to resolutely curb speculative property investment as controls on the real estate sector are still in a "critical period." Wen said that smooth progress in the affordable housing projects will provide important support in stabilizing property prices and consolidating the government's efforts to tame overly high home prices. (Xinhua)
  • SEP 23: Real estate prices in China are in no condition to rebound with the government firmly set to continue its regulation on the property market, said the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD). But the official also notes that negative factors do exists against a stable property market and that regulation over the sector is still at a crucial stage… Next, the government will continue to carry out its regulative policies to ensure implementation, said the official. Differential credit and taxation policies will continue to be implemented to curb speculative buying. More work will be done to enhance taxation over unsold properties and there will be an expansion of property tax pilot schemes, the official added. The Chinese government will also work to increase land supply and the stock of small and medium commercial properties. It will also improve market monitoring to make full preparations for a future price rebound, said the officials. (China Daily)

Net-net, it’s pretty easy to see where Chinese policymakers stand with regards to the future demand in China’s property market. Moreover, we think their resolve to continue combating “overly high prices” and speculative demand warrants further caution with regards to any expectations for both prices and transactions in the Chinese property market over the intermediate term. Additionally, QE3-inspired commodity price inflation has caused monetary easing expectations to be priced completely out of the Chinese interest rate market from a NTM perspective.

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As an aside, we were keen to point out the undeniable negative impact of QE3 on global GROWTH (via accelerating INFLATION and decelerating POLICY easing) in the following two notes (hyperlinked for your reviewing ease):

The diminishing outlook for “stimulus” in China – particularly on the monetary easing and property market regulation fronts – led to a proactively-predictable selloff across property developer stocks in recent months. Notably, this chart does not rhyme with the pollyannaish expectations for the impact of QE3 in the US equity market:

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With Chinese real GDP growth trending so weak in the YTD (+7.6% YoY in 2Q was the lowest since 1Q09) and expectations for future growth making lower-highs in the YTD (Bloomberg Consensus 2013 estimate at +8.1% YoY currently, down from a peak of +8.6% in MAR), it’s natural to ponder why Chinese policymakers appear so content to let their economy slow to a relative crawl.

The most logical answer that comes to mind is official fear of social unrest. As such, keeping a lid on inflation and maintaining economic stability are two of the primary goals of the Communist Party agenda. In on the inflation front, it’s easy to see why they would be concerned with prices in China’s residential market (~80% of total supply; ~90% of sales) that 74.3% of polled Chinese households find “too high to accept” (per the PBOC’s latest quarterly monetary policy report). Furthermore, the intense government focus on increasing the supply of affordable housing also lends credence to this view.

On the economic stability front, we think Chinese policymakers have been keen to recognize the lessons learned from the US housing bubble and its subsequent bust, which led to the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis. US employment remains structurally impaired as a result and we think Chinese policymakers are carefully seeking to avoid this fate.

While we certainly aren’t calling for a Chinese banking crisis (nor do we think their property market is a bubble in the traditional sense), we do find it worth noting that the total amount of loans on Chinese bank balance sheets have more than doubled since end of 2008, creating ample room for adverse selection as well as a future upswing in non-performing loans, which are at historic lows as a percentage of total loans. Additionally, the memories of shelling out a total of $650 billion (44.7% of 2002 GDP) to bail out the country’s fragile banking system during the years of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s may still be potent in the minds of Chinese policymakers (the top brass has been in power for a decade).

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Broadly speaking, bank credit is just shy of historic peaks as a ratio of the Chinese economy and the 2,000-plus basis point upswing from 2008 to 2009 lends credence to the view that the Chinese policymakers (via state-directed lending at policy banks) may have levered the economy too quickly in an attempt to reflate growth in the wake of the GFC – an event which led to an acceleration of inflation as well as rising risk of an NPL cycle over the long term. It is our understanding that this is a view increasingly shared by Chinese policymakers atop the central planning hierarchy (and perhaps one of the primary reasons they have been reluctant to implement a commensurate stimulus package in the YTD):

[The] 4-trillion yuan package of state spending and tax cuts announced in 2008 stoked inflation and sparked concern local governments took on more debt than they can afford.”

– Xu Lin speaking to reporters at Peking University on SEP 17, 2012

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Again, we’re not currently in the camp that China is careening towards a banking crisis; we are, however, flagging the risk that a potential broad-based deterioration of credit quality across the Chinese financial system is likely to keep Chinese policymakers focused on quashing any signs of a property price bubble in a proactive,  not Western-style reactive, manner. Furthermore, the credit risk embedded in a [potential] severe property price bust is not well diversified across the Chinese financial system – meaning the Chinese government would ultimately be on the hook for any damages (net corporate bond issuance was a mere 15.4% of the aggregate net bank loan and trust financing extended in 1H12 – a similar ratio to full-year 2011).

With fixed capital formation at 46.2% of Chinese GDP, we would be remiss to single out property developers as the only industry at risk; there are a handful of other industries such as steelmaking (Baoshan Iron & Steel Co.?) and construction equipment manufacturing (Sany Heavy Industry?) that may also experience a structural erosion in credit quality. A chart of Chinese steel products prices agrees with this view:

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Perhaps that’s why Chinese policymakers were keen to focus their 12th Five-Year Plan on rebalancing the country’s economic growth model, calling for a structurally-slower pace in the process. Rather than reflate now and risk an epic economic and financial market collapse at some point in not-too-distant future, Chinese policymakers are likely attempting to engineer a soft landing/smooth transition to a more sustainable growth model (i.e. the Politburo ≠ the Fed). Even though they explicitly told us that’s precisely what they were going to do, it’s just now all starting to make sense in the context of the “missing stimulus bazooka”.

Darius Dale

Senior Analyst

THE HEDGEYE 20-CITY NOMINAL PROPERTY PRICE INDEX

As you probably are aware, the National Bureau of Statistics pulled the plug on its monthly nominal property price data back at the end of 2010, leaving analysts and investors alike searching for clues to the severity of China’s policy-induced property market downturn. Until now, we had been content with analyzing the monthly 70-city MoM data, but the need to contextualize those sequential changes became too great to ignore. As such, we’ve combined price per sq.m² data from China Real Estate Information Corp. (one of China’s top real estate data providers) to formulate an average market price of 20 of China’s busiest property markets.

The caveat here is that their data series start in JAN ’11, making historic context hard to come by. To solve for this constraint, we indexed our new series to China Economic Information Network price indices going back to 1998 (though 2010). Our methods aren’t perfect, as both data sets aren’t necessarily apples-to-apples, but it’s as good a long-term read on the nominal price level of the Chinese property market as any we have access to at the current juncture.