Following 18 months of recession, China’s housing market finally recorded growth in the first quarter. But market analysts say it’s too soon to talk of a recovery despite positive signs
For decades, homeowners and investors in China’s residential market had become accustomed to one basic law which underpinned the whole market. The rule of thumb had it that prices would always go up despite the odd blip. Yet the past two years have severely tested this assumption, in turn changing perceptions and market dynamics.
For six straight quarters, as China’s surprisingly rapid post-pandemic recovery turned into a slump, the housing market shrank amid enduring lockdowns and a default crisis typified by Evergrande Group. Last year, the market bottomed out during a period in which mortgage boycotts by frustrated buyers hit more than 330 delayed residential developments across the country. The largest number was in Zhengzhou, the capital of China’s most densely populated province Henan. New home sales plummeted 28 percent, and total investment fell 10 percent last year.
This year, the market appears to have turned the corner, but are we witnessing a recovery, as appeared to be the case in late 2020, or will the downward market adjustment resume? In April, the National Bureau of Statistics reported 1.3 percent growth in the property sector during the first quarter, marking the official end of the 18-month recession, and there have been other positive signs.
A month earlier, China’s largest 100 developers recorded cumulative sales of RMB461.6 billion (USD66.8 billion), a 15 percent increase on the same month the previous year, and a 30 percent increase on the previous month. This statistic was significant, as many of these developers had experienced severe financial difficulties, with some at risk of default. And February is an important month as it reflects buying sentiment in and around Chinese New Year, a key date on the housing market sales calendar.
Rating agencies have since acknowledged and further bolstered positive market sentiment. In April, Fitch reported signs China’s housing market was stabilising. And, in May, Moody’s revised the overall outlook for the market from ‘negative’ to ‘stable’, its first outlook upgrade in nearly two years.
“[This] reflects the improving sales and funding conditions for developers,” it said.
Still, numerous warning signs remain, not least the fragmented nature of market improvements in cities including Beijing and Shanghai compared to smaller cities. In late May, US-based Beige Book, which offers critical insights on China’s economic data, warned of new negative signs following a survey of more than 1,000 businesses as sales slowed, and pricing and transactions “weakened sharply” in the commercial property sector.
“There are still areas of weakness and confidence has been shaken but expectations have improved, especially in leading cities,” says James MacDonald, director of research at Savills China in Shanghai.
In the capital Beijing, positive signs have started to appear in most segments of the market. The value of large project investment transactions soared 60 percent during the first quarter with CapitaLand’s purchase of the Beijing Suning Life Plaza for RMB2.81 billion (USD397 million) among the largest single deals.
China is a huge country, so you can pick any specific data point and draw a story from it. There is no true average
Shanghai was among the few markets to remain resilient last year and continued to show signs of improvement during the first quarter as the key second-hand residential market grew nearly 29 percent, and average sales prices grew six percent compared to the previous quarter, slightly up on the same period last year.
In April, sales prices of new residential units climbed about 4.5 percent compared to a year earlier in both Beijing and Shanghai. Other large cities faired well, led by Chengdu which recorded an 8.7 percent price growth, followed by Hangzhou with 5.3 percent.
“First-hand commodity housing [in Chengdu] has seen a steady rise in demand, and the average price has increased as well,” says Sophy Pan, a senior research manager at Savills China.
But a closer look at housing data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics reveals a key problem facing the wider market. Although the biggest cities have returned to modest price inflation, or in the cases of Shenzhen and Guangzhou have stemmed equity losses witnessed last year, smaller cities are faring much worse.
In April, of the 70 largest cities in China, 48 were still recording falling prices compared to a year earlier. The vast majority of smaller cities included the popular, pandemichit tourist hotspots Dali, Guilin, and Wuxi, and Dandong, a city in north-eastern China on the border with North Korea, a country which has remained sealed since January 2020 despite recent rumours of a reopening.
The largest cities in China’s northeast have all faced similar difficulties including Shenyang, Harbin, Changchun, and Dalian, each of which saw prices drop between nearly 4% and 5% during the year to the end of April 2023. This downturn has extended to smaller cities in the region including Mudanjiang, Jinzhou, and Jilin where prices also declined over the same period.
China’s housing recovery or lack thereof looks entirely different depending on where you look. “China is a huge country, so you can pick any specific data point and draw a story from it,” Ervin Yeo, CEO of commercial management at CapitaLand China, said at a roundtable on the potential for a Chinese housing market recovery held in Shanghai in mid-March. “There is no true average.”
A key reason for this spectrum of potential recovery exists in the multitude of housing policies enacted at the city level, combined with those introduced by Beijing, and there has been no shortage of support since the end of last year. The central government has been keen to support large developers with financial problems which have not yet turned terminal in the hope of breaking the domino effect and instilling confidence into a market wracked by concerns over defaults in the wake of the problems at Evergrande Group. In the first quarter, developers Sunac, Fantasia, CIFI, Zhongliang, and Evergrande itself turned to the government for help in restructuring debt worth a combined USD27 billion-plus, according to Fitch Ratings.
Municipal governments in large cities, after years of implementing layers of curbs designed to cool markets, have in recent months done the opposite. In Chengdu, the city authority has relaxed housing purchase and sales limits and encouraged banks to stabilise credit and loans to struggling developers. In Chongqing, authorities have this year piloted a new project whereby properties with mortgages can be listed and traded without prior release of a mortgage, reducing transaction risks and costs, which is tipped by analysts for nationwide implementation later.
Shenzhen has been among the few cities which have bucked this trend. The city government has not removed any of the strict policies implemented in recent years in a bid to cool what had become one of the most overheated property markets in China—and the world— following years of soaring price growth. Nonetheless, Shenzhen has benefitted from the opening of Hong Kong on its doorstep in January which led to a sharp increase in movement and economic activity across the border.
The Shenzhen government may be positioned for sustained, slower growth to avoid its previous price problems, a policy which appears to be working: The city recorded a steady price increase of just 0.3 percent in April compared to a month earlier and a drop of 1.1 percent compared to a year earlier.
In recent months, newspaper commentary in China has further championed President Xi Jinping’s oft-repeated mantra that “property is for living, not for speculation”. The difference is that during the past two years at least, whether deliberate or not, the market may have started to heed Beijing.
“From the perspective of overall economic development, the era when people used to speculate in real estate to obtain huge profits is over,” Tian Yun, a veteran economist in Beijing, told the nationalist daily newspaper Global Times in late April.
Whether or not profits, huge or otherwise, remain possible in the short term remains a question of debate amid still mixed signals across China’s multi-speed housing market. In April, Fitch Ratings forecast new home sales volumes may continue to decline this year by up to five percent, with average prices expected to remain stagnant, albeit with considerable variations by city.
Myriad challenges still exist in terms of house prices, not least selling off still huge inventory, particularly in smaller cities, and reduced transaction volumes across the board in terms of land and new developments, says James Woo, co-head of valuations at Colliers China.
“For 2023, sale prices of new residential projects in first-tier cities will be relatively stable,” he comments. “In second and third-tier cities [prices] will continue to decrease compared with the previous year.”
A wider economic recovery in China—expected to come in at around five percent this year, according to many analysts—remains a key driver of housing market sentiment and prospects, says MacDonald at Savills. Coupled with enduring concerns over developer debt and solvency, risks remain diminished but still significant, he adds, assessing the current state of the housing market: “Recovery is maybe still too strong of a word; I would say we have entered a period of relative stability.”
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