World holds breath as China's property bubble threatens to burst

Fears of a collapse in China's property boom may be overstated, at least for the time being, and we can expect a gradual cooling of the market.

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When it comes to nightmare scenarios, they don't come much scarier than the one that forecasts the property bubble in China is going to burst. If it happens, it will end the greatest story of economic growth yet.

The rise in property prices certainly has a lot of bubble characteristics. Many experts reckon China's biggest cities have experienced price rises of up to 50 per cent in the past two years.

Fears of a collapse in the property boom may be overstated, at least for the time being, and we can expect a gradual cooling of the market.

This is largely because the country still has a way to go in terms of urbanisation and because the government appears prepared to intervene if it starts to cool down too much, or if it starts to rise too quickly again.

After the sobering lessons of collapses in countries such as the US, Ireland and Spain, it's a vision that can rob the sleep of bondholders from Abu Dhabi to Perth, derailing the fragile economic recovery, even as it gains momentum.

There are serious pressures at play, particularly as China is awash with cash and property is one of the few vehicles for private investors.

Bank deposit rates do not offer serious returns for investors keen to earn a decent payback on their savings, the stock market is too geared towards big institutions, and most ordinary people are forbidden from investing abroad.

There are speculators in the market who believe they are guaranteed a profit on their property investments, displaying the kind of hubris that resulted in tears in Ireland three years ago.

State companies who received many subsidies through the stimulus plan after the global economic crisis also must look to property to keep the cash moving.

Mindful of the risks, the government has intensified property investment curbs, which seem to be paying off. While the Bank of England had only interest rates to protect itself, China has numerous measures it can employ.

There is simply not as much borrowing in China as there was in the UK or Ireland. Homebuyers are required to make a down payment of 40 per cent on their houses, and while prices are rising rapidly so are wages and salaries.

New home prices in Beijing rose 4.9 per cent last month from the same period a year earlier, easing from a 6.8 per cent gain in February, while houses in the Shanghai climbed 1.7 per cent last month, down from 2.3 per cent growth in February.

Of the 70 cities monitored by the government, 67 posted gains, down from 68 in the first two months.

Some 40 cities said last month they would restrict new home prices below annual economic and disposable per-capita income growth or keep them steady after the central government's measures to pull back housing values.

From Thursday, the government increased banks' reserve requirements to cool inflation. Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank governor, said monetary tightening would continue for "some time".

Gareth Leather, an economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, believes the market is not a bubble, despite the rise in house prices.

"We're not saying there are no dangers in the short term but the two main factors driving demand in China are different from those which we saw in Ireland, or Spain or the United States," said Mr Leather.

China is growing fast, but from a lower base. It is a highly populous, largely agricultural society that is being turned at high speed into an urban society.

By 2025, at least 220 Chinese cities are likely to have more than 1 million people. At present, China's urban population is more than 540 million, more than the total population of the enlarged EU at about 490 million.

"China has lots of urbanisation - there are people moving to the cities in big numbers," Mr Leather said. "And also there are people who want to move from old substandard housing to new housing. This is not what happened in Ireland, where the economic fundamentals were different."

All this investment in China will result in trillions of dollars being spent in the next few years, which will lead directly and indirectly to more than 50 per cent growth in demand for steel and strong energy demand and have repercussions well beyond China's borders.