The 2012 Blind Side: China’s Housing Bust

As the world’s attention focuses on the death of Kim Jong Il and shorts keep piling up in the Euro, China’s real estate bubble appears to have finally burst. This is the one macro swan that could really smack developed markets in 2012 as few are focused even though the Shanghai composite and Hang Seng are down over 25 percent from their highs earlier in the year. Both are down 21 percent for 2011 with Shanghai closing at its lowest weekly close for the year on Friday.

Foreign Affairs has just posted a must read piece, China’s Real Estate Bubble May Have Just Popped, which will sound very familiar to Global Macro Monitor readers.

Here are a few money quotes,

For years analysts have warned of a looming real estate bubble in China, but the predicted downturn, the bursting of that bubble, never occurred — that is, until now. In a telling scene two months ago, Shanghai property developers started slashing prices on their latest luxury condos by up to one-third. Crowds of owners who had recently bought apartments at full price converged on sales offices throughout the city, demanding refunds. Some angry investors went on a rampage, breaking windows and smashing showrooms.

Shanghai homeowners are hardly the only ones getting nervous. Sudden, steep price reductions are upending real estate markets across China. According to the property agency Homelink, new home prices in Beijing dropped 35 percent in November alone. And the free fall may continue for some time. Centaline, another leading property agency, estimates that developers have built up 22 months’ worth of unsold inventory in Beijing and 21 months’ worth in Shanghai. Everyone from local landowners to Chinese speculators and international investors are now worrying that these discounts indicate that “the biggest bubble of the century,” as it was called earlier this year, has just popped, with serious consequences not only for one of the world’s most promising economies — but internationally as well…

The next three months will be a watershed moment for a Chinese investor class that has been flush with cash for years but lacking a place to put it. Instead of developing a more balanced, consumer-based economy, an entire regime of Beijing technocrats — drunk on investment-led growth — let the real estate market run red hot for too long and, when forced to act, lacked the credibility to cool the sector down. That failure threatens to undermine the country’s continued economic rise.

This should put the Wukan protests in the Guangdong province in better context,

In a few cities, such as coastal Wenzhou and coal-rich Ordos, the collapse in property prices has sparked a full-blown credit crisis, with reports of ruined businessmen leaping off building rooftops; some are fleeing the country. The central bank’s decision on December 5 to lower the reserve requirement ratio for the first time in three years signaled a broader move to pump money into the economy. Beijing has directed banks in Wenzhou to extend emergency loans to troubled borrowers. Of course, officials could halt the sell-off simply by handing developers enough cheap loans to allow them to carry their inventory. But such a strategy risks re-inflating the bubble.

The impact of a housing downturn would have a significant impact globally. International suppliers who have been fueling China’s construction boom — iron-ore miners in Australia and Brazil, copper miners in Chile, lumber mills in Canada and Russia, and multinational equipment makers such as Caterpillar and Komatsu — could be hard hit. Heavy losses on real estate and related lending could damage investment and consumer confidence, undermining the rising tide of Chinese demand that has been a much-needed growth engine for everything from Boeing airplanes to Volkswagen and GM automobiles to KFC and McDonald’s fast food.

We’re going to be spend a lot time over the holidays thinking how this plays out in China’s financial sector and the implications for markets.

Finally, this should sound familiar as the author, Patrick Chovanec, writes,

Beijing’s response to the global financial crisis added jet fuel to the fire. To maintain GDP growth of nearly ten percent during a massive downturn in global demand, China’s leaders engineered a lending boom that expanded the country’s money supply by roughly two-thirds. Real estate was already the preferred place for the Chinese to stash cash; now, investors had that much more cash to stash. Prices rose accordingly: In many locations, the cost of prime new properties doubled in just two years.

But this run of speculation has bid up the price of housing and left people who actually need a place to live in the lurch. Given the prices prevailing earlier this spring, the average wage earner in Beijing would have had to work 36 years to pay for an average home, compared to 18 years in Singapore, 12 in New York, and five in Frankfurt. The bidding war has further pushed developers to build ever more costly luxury properties that investors crave but few ordinary people can afford.

Take the time to read the piece in full. It may help as you determine your 2012 strategy.

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