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China Real Estate: When Is A Bubble A Bubble?

Business, China, Company Strategy, Polyolefins, Styrenics, US
By John Richardson on 20-Nov-2009




construction-machinery.jpgSource of picture: www.managingthedragon.com

By John Richardson

I love the phrase used by Andrew Peaple of the Wall Street Journal in this article on China’s property “bubble”: Getting a straight answer is like “nailing jelly to a wall”, in other words xxxxxx impossible. I will be in Shanghai next week on a business trip so will attempt to do some first-hand nailing.

The World Bank, Peaple points out, says that income growth in China is keeping up with price rises. This is a view supported by the China Economic Quarterly, which also makes the point that there remains a lot of pent-up demand for housing.

Property prices rose by 3.9% in 70 of China’s large and medium-sized cities, but there does seem to be the possibility that highly localised much bigger bubbles are being inflated. Housing affordability in Beijing looks to stretched and prices in October rose by 13.8% in Shenzhen.

Still, in three of the 70 cities surveyed property prices actually fell.

The again, though, Zhang Xin, chief executive of Soho China – one of the country’s most successful privately owned property developers – was quoted in several media reports as saying that a big bubble was, indeed, being pumped up. She blamed this on the big increase in bank lending, the cornerstone of the government’s economic stimulus.

“Real estate prices should only go up because people want to actually use the space, but at the moment we can see more and more empty buildings across the whole country and in every real-estate segment,” she was quoted as saying.

Vacancy rates in the Pudong district of Shanghai are as high as 50% as more buildings keep going up, Zhang added.

“In Manhattan they have vacancy rates of 10-15% and they feel like the sky is falling.”

The danger for chemicals consumption is that changes in government policy for the property sector could have a big detrimental effect.

Tax breaks, low interest rates and smaller down-payment requirements have fuelled this year’s boom – along with the plentiful bank lending.

Another connected issue is assessing how much chemistry goes into China’s construction sector.

In the US, for example, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) assesses that the construction sector purchases $8 of every $1,000 of chemicals output.

“A big problem in China is the huge variance on what people do to their homes, from very basic equipping of steel and concrete box-like apartments to, of course, the super-rich who are ripping out tiles and refitting kitchens almost as often they change their underwear,” said a Shanghai-based office worker.

Nailing jelly to the wall would no doubt have been a fair description of getting reliable data out of the US economy during the early part of the last century.

But back then it mattered far less to the rest of the world.