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China: A Housing Market Without Re-sales?

November 27, 2016 | 5:54 pm | trdlogo | Favorites |

I just returned from China for the second time in a little over a year and have yet been able to make sense of their domestic housing market. I am not talking about their must discussed housing bubble phenomenon or whether they have a housing bubble in the truest sense. I am talking about what seems to be a lack of a re-sale market.

After years of communist rule, the concept of home ownership in China is relatively new and appears to be in its early stages of development. Because growth in housing construction has been astronomical with all sorts of distorted metrics – their use of cement in 3 years (2011-2013) was more than the amount used in the U.S. over 100 years (1901-2000).

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Housing accounted for at least 15% of GDP in 2015, down from 22% in 2013. This is why we are seeing large Chinese construction companies working all over the globe these days – due to oversupply of new housing in China. The opportunities for revenue growth at the same pace seems limited.

On the bullet train we rode from Bejing to Shanghai, there were high rises under construction on both sides of the train tracks for most of the 5.5 hour trip. It’s hard to comprehend how much construction is underway without seeing it first hand, but it is massive.


Ghost Cities v. Ghost Towns
Unlike ghost towns in the U.S. which are abandoned after the economic forces are no longer in play, ghost cities have never been occupied. I think this is a pretty obvious flaw of central planning. I learned that incentives play a big role in unnecessary construction. In order for provinces to receive income from the central state, they are encouraged to generate GDP. Construction of apartment buildings is a quick way to boost GDP but there didn’t seem to be concern about their eventual occupancy (a la, build it and they will come). Also since the government owns the land, developers pay ongoing fees for using it. Our tour guide said that there were at least 40 ghost cities in China although this study says there are less. Here is a map of known ghost cities:

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Multiple generations pooling their equity
Housing prices have been rising at about 17% annually for a decade – versus 11% disposable income growth of city dwellers. Rising prices have forced many buyers to pool the financial resources of as many as 3 generations of family. This shows how much is at stake for the Chinese government – if the housing bubble was to collapse. Yet same people I spoke with that expressed faith in the housing market showed grave concern over the integrity of their stock market. What alternative investments aside from housing does the typical domestic investor have? Especially since Chinese housing prices increased 53% in the past year?

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However I am trying to get an answer for a much more basic point.

Is there a substantial Chinese re-sale market?
I feel way out on a limb when I say the following: few investors actually sell their apartments in the newly constructed apartment buildings.

I asked investors and real estate professionals in the Chinese housing market; four of our tour guides of the past few years; various people I met there during The Real Deal Shanghai conference: “Do investors sell their new apartments?” I consistently got a blank stare for a few moments as if the question had never come up before. A few people told me that buyers hold on to their investments for the long term and “no one sells.” On one of the real estate panels I moderated in Shanghai, a real estate professional made a comment that Chinese investors always prefer new.

The government has been trying to cool the market, requiring much larger down payments for investors, i.e. 70% and limit purchases to 1 per investor, but demand and creative work arounds, such as bogus divorces to skirt restrictions, remains high.


U.S. re-sales (existing sales) have accounted for roughly 85% of total U.S. housing sales over the long run. Granted, China is new to the concept of home ownership so the re-sale market would not dominate housing sales like it does in the U.S. But without a vibrant re-sale market, the “value” derived from Chinese housing market indices tell us Chinese housing price trends must be almost exclusively based on the newest home construction sales prices and that equity is not tangible.

Home sales seem to be a one-way transaction. Investors that buy a home feel wealthier as their investment rises in value. Theoretically that gets them to go out and consume, i.e. the wealth effect. However the market share of consumer spending in China is roughly half the 60% market share seen in the U.S. so they have a long way to go. While the Chinese investor may enjoy rental income when an active rental market exists, domestic housing purchases seem to be driven by a long term equity play.

I have found no anecdotal evidence of the widespread selling of existing properties that were recently developed. There doesn’t seemed to be a tangible moment when the recent investor expects to cash out the equity realized on their purchase of several years ago. If this is an incorrect observation and there indeed is a vibrant and active re-sale market of newly constructed housing, I was unable to see one or be told of one by consumers and real estate investors who live there.

So please clue me in.

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NYT v. WSJ Smogdown: Status of Chinese Investment in U.S. Real Estate

December 1, 2015 | 11:39 am | nytlogo | Favorites |

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[Source: Yahoo News]

Last weekend I read two terrific articles on Chinese real estate investment in the U.S. but they seemed seemed to conflict – check out the headlines:

New York Times Chinese Cash Floods U.S. Real Estate Market

Wall Street Journal Chinese Pull Back From U.S. Property Investments The subtitle says it all – The nation’s economic and stock-market slump puts buyers on the sidelines

Are the Chinese flooding the U.S. market now or are they pulling back? Which is it? Or is it both?

In my recent trip to Shanghai, I spoke to and interviewed many, many real estate investors at The Real Deal Forum. I got the impression that investment has pulled back a bit in 2015 but expectations were high that investment would expand again, although not to the level of the past 5 years. Of course I was doing this in a biased environment – at in investor conference. I was consistently told that government efforts to prop up the stock market spooked much of the smart money out of the market since the actions were taken to calm everyday investors.

The New York Times piece seemed prompted by a P.R. pitch from the Chinese developer for their Dallas suburb project enticed with a suburban angle. It was a refreshing angle since Chinese real estate investment in the U.S. has been an urban narrative and specifically focused on the high end. The article illustrated just how massive the investment patterns have been. To date the narrative has been focused on super luxury condos in expensive metropolitan areas, while the suburbs got limited attention.

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The WSJ article is more orientated towards the past few weeks while the NYT article is a longer term view. Both publications place emphasis on NAR’s Profile of International Home Buying Activity whose results emphasized the Chinese investment surge of the previous year. The survey results only reflect the market through last March, so it is 9 months behind the current market. The Chinese investment numbers are staggering, and they are probably understated. Since the NAR report is simply a survey of it’s members and NAR has limited exposure to New York City, especially Manhattan – a hotbed of Chinese real estate investment activity.

NAR2015internationalCHINESEwsj

Incidentally, do the above 2 charts look similar? They both relied on the NAR report.

The NYT piece set the table on the entire multi-year phenomenon using a ton of cool charts while the WSJ attempted to illustrate the change in recent weeks Both outlets were forced to rely on a lot of anecdotal to make their case. Both articles are consistent with my views as each provided a different context.

The NYT piece provided the long term historical view and the WSJ was a short term snapshot.

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[Video] China’s investors and the safe haven of American real estate

August 31, 2015 | 4:10 pm | yahoofinance2 | TV, Videos |

Here’s a summary of potential future actions by Chinese investors with the recent spate of volatility in the financial markets.

According to Jonathan Miller, president of appraisal firm Miller Samuel, the tumult in China may lead to even more money finding its way into American residential and commercial real estate. “There are not a lot of investment vehicles in China,” said Miller. “You have the [Chinese] housing market, which is a pretty significant bubble. You have thousands of ghost cities that have been constructed. On top of that, you have a pretty volatile stock market situation. So there is some speculation that there actually will be outflow as a result of this and maybe that will end up in the U.S.” Costello concurs with Miller, noting that China’s insurance companies have been allowed by their regulators to invest in foreign real estate only since 2012. “Unless and until they have to cover losses at home, they’re not going to sell these properties,” said Costello. “They’re going to hold them for the long term.”

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Will London (or any large city) Become a Bad Version of Dubai?

July 15, 2015 | 2:24 pm |

Dubaization Defined.

This video is an epic condemnation of the new wave of architecture associated with super luxury housing that is redefining the London skyline presented by – The Guardian.

Alain de Botton goes full on, providing heavy criticism that is well worth watching for the answer to the question: Why we are seeing the super luxury/starchitect phenomenon occur?

But the rest of the piece slips into full scale whining.

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[Video] Fox Business Risk & Reward w/Deirdre Bolton 7-2-2015

July 5, 2015 | 8:53 pm | foxbusiness | TV, Videos |

Samantha DeBianchi of Million Dollar Listing Miami and I joined with Deirdre Bolton to speak about foreign buyers and a little Grexit (but what does anyone really understand about that?). Touched on record setting Manhattan housing prices as well.

And waiting in the green room ended up more like a party.

7-2-2015FBN

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Bloomberg View Column: Invest in a Painting, Not a Condo

May 4, 2015 | 11:00 am | BloombergViewlogoGray | Charts |

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Read my latest Bloomberg View column Invest in a Painting, Not a Condo.

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Here’s an excerpt…

A couple of weeks ago, Laurence Fink, the chief executive officer of BlackRock Inc., observed that “the two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art … and apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London”…

[read more]


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[VIDEO] Chinese Housing Bubble Version of ‘The Truman Show’

April 29, 2015 | 9:31 am | nytlogo | TV, Videos |

To keep the sales going, developers in the massively bloated Chinese housing market are getting more creative. This NY Times short documentary is fantastic and surreal. I’d chalk it up to simply bizarre, if there wasn’t such a desperate undertone to it.

It reminded me of “The Truman Show” movie where everything Jim Carrey’s character saw was fake, made for him. However in the Chinese version, everyone knows it’s fake but embraces it.

With the massive oversupply, no wonder savvy Chinese investors are extracting as much wealth as they can and investing overseas in anticipation of that day of reckoning.

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Good and Bad Super-Luxury Condo Buyers Love the LLC

February 9, 2015 | 9:46 am | nytlogo | Favorites |

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One of the great ironies of modern residential real estate has been the expansion in transparency of information, along with greater secrecy of ownership. I think the latter coincides with the much greater wealth that is being put into hard assets like real estate. Privacy and security are indeed very important to many, including the wealthy and especially those near the top of the financial pyramid. There is nothing sinister or unseemly about the desire for privacy. The use of limited liability corporations (LLCs) has been a legal vehicle (and a gift) from lawmakers who created it that allows people to keep certain transactions hidden from view. However the LLC also provides an opportunity for bad actors to shelter their often ill-gotten assets too.

Louise Story and Stephanie Saul of The New York Times have explored this in “Towers of Secrecy: Stream of Foreign Wealth Flows to Elite New York Real Estate,” an epic data visualization along the lines of “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” This article is a must read covering the hypersensitive subject of high end real estate and privacy.

The ongoing debate about the dying middle class versus the booming fortunes of the wealthy, the lack of affordable housing versus the super-luxury residential tower boom and municipal governments grappling to keep construction and development moving forward to keep tax revenue flows coming in, have made this effort long overdue.

Towers of Secrecy” is careful not to stereotype users of LLCs in high end real estate transactions as exclusively foreign buyers. Within the Manhattan market, foreign buyers are not the majority of overall high-end real estate purchasers. However they tend to be concentrated around the Midtown central business district (aka ‘Billionaires’ Row’) whereas domestic purchasers tend to favor markets found to the north and south of Midtown.

UPDATE There’s a great recap over on Curbed NY too:
Scandal-Plagued Foreigners Park Millions in Midtown Condos

Here are a few screenshots of the embedded videos within the “Towers of Secrecy” piece.

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Bloomberg View Column: Housing Market Blows Hot and Cold

February 8, 2015 | 5:32 pm | BloombergViewlogoGray | Charts |

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Read my latest Bloomberg View column Housing Market Blows Hot and Cold.

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Please join the conversation over at Bloomberg View. Here’s an excerpt…

The northern third of the U.S. is locked in a straitjacket of snow, ice and bleak weather better suited to staying at home than going out and hunting for a new one. I can almost hear it now: Remember how awful last year’s polar vortex was for the fledgling housing-market recovery?…

[read more]


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VIDEO: Fox Business Risk & Reward w/ Deirdre Bolton 2-18-15

February 2, 2015 | 8:00 pm | foxbusiness | TV, Videos |

Always a pleasure to join Deirdre Bolton and talk housing.

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Top 100 Cities Worldwide: Most New Residential Buildings

January 22, 2015 | 12:00 pm |

Here’s a companion table to my Bloomberg View column published today: Living the High Life. The volume of tall buildings recently completed or under development is staggering. Within the list are generally mixed use but have some element of residential included (i.e. rentals or condos) The data was tabulated in stunning detail at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s. Skyscraper Center.

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North America Leads Luxury Housing Trends in 2Q14 – Knight Frank

July 30, 2014 | 12:34 pm | delogo |

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Knight Frank published their quarterly Prime Global Cities Index today and North America led the way as a region with a 14.5% rise in prices. “Prime” translates to “Luxury” in US housingspeak. We provide research for their Manhattan and Miami results through the Elliman Reports we prepare.

The report conclusion succinctly summarizes the state of high end housing today and speaks to the global phenomenon:

…the index’s annual increase of 6.2% in the year to June is above the long-run average of 4.6% recorded since Lehman’s collapse in the third quarter of 2008, underlining the extent to which prime property has become a favoured asset class globally.

Here’s the table…

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[click on table to open report]

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