The “Nightmare Scenario” For Beijing: 50 Million Chinese Apartments Are Empty

Back in 2017, we explained why the “fate of the world economy is in the hands of China’s housing bubble.” The answer was simple: for the Chinese population, and growing middle class, to keep spending vibrant and borrowing elevated, it had to feel comfortable and confident that its wealth would keep rising. However, unlike the US where the stock market is the ultimate barometer of the confidence boosting “wealth effect”, in China it has always been about housing as three quarters of Chinese household assets are parked in real estate, compared to only 28% in the US, with the remainder invested financial assets.

Source: Xinhua

Beijing knows this, of course, which is why China periodically and consistently reflates its housing bubble, hoping that the popping of the bubble, which happened in late 2011 and again in 2014, will be a controlled, “smooth landing” process.  For now, Beijing has been successful in maintaining price stability at least according to official data, allowing the air out of the “Tier 1” home price bubble which peaked in early 2016, while preserving modest home price appreciation in secondary markets.

How long China will be able to avoid a sharp price decline remains to be seen, but in the meantime another problem faces China’s housing market: in addition to being the primary source of household net worth – and therefore stable and growing consumption – it has also been a key driver behind China’s economic growth, with infrastructure spending and capital investment long among the biggest components of the country’s goalseeked GDP. One result has been China’s infamous ghost cities, built only for the sake of Keynesian spending to hit a predetermined GDP number that would make Beijing happy.

Meanwhile, in the process of reflating the latest housing bubble, another dire byproduct of this artificial housing “market” has emerged: tens of millions of apartments and houses standing empty across the country.

According to Bloomberg, soon-to-be-published research will show that roughly 22% of China’s urban housing stock is unoccupied, according to Professor Gan Li, who runs the main nationwide study. That amounts to more than 50 million empty homes.

The reason for the massive empty inventory glut: to keep supply low and prices artificially elevated by taking out as much inventory off the market as possible. This, however, works both ways, and while it helps boost prices on the way up as the economy grow and speculators flood the housing market with easy money, the moment the trend flips the spike in supply as empty units are offloaded will lead to a panic liquidation of homes, resulting in what may be the biggest housing market crash ever observed, and putting the US home bubble of 2006 to shame.

Indeed, as Bloomberg notes, the “nightmare scenario” for Chinese authorities is that owners of unoccupied dwellings rush to sell when cracks start appearing in the property market, causing a self-reinforcing downward price spiral.

Worse, the latest data, from a survey in 2017, also suggests Beijing’s efforts to curb property speculation – which alongside shadow banking and the persistent threat of sudden bank runs (like the one discussed last week) is considered by Beijing a key threat to financial and social stability – have failed.

“There’s no other single country with such a high vacancy rate,” said Gan, of Chengdu’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics. “Should any crack emerge in the property market, the homes to be offloaded will hit China like a flood.”

How did the Chinese researcher obtain this troubling number? To find the percentage of vacant housing, thousands of researchers spread out across 363 Chinese counties last year as part of the China Household Finance Survey, which Gan runs at the university.

Gan said that the vacancy rate, which excludes homes yet to be sold by developers, was little changed from a 2013 reading of 22.4%. And while that study showed 49 million vacant homes, Gan puts the number now at “definitely more than 50 million units.

Meanwhile, Beijing – which is fully aware of these stats, and is also aware that even a modest price decline could be magnified instantly as millions of “for sale” units hit the market at the same time – is worried. That’s why Chinese authorities have imposed buying restrictions and limited credit availability, only to see money flooding into other areas. Rampant price gains also mean millions of people are shut out from the market, exacerbating inequality.

In fact, China’s president Xi famously said in October last year that “houses are built to be inhabited, not for speculation”, and yet a quarter of China’s housing is just that: empty, and only serves to amplify speculation.

While holiday homes and the empty dwellings of migrants seeking work elsewhere account for some of the deserted properties, Gan found that investment purchases have been the biggest factor keeping the vacancy rate high. That’s despite curbs across the country meant to discourage buying of multiple dwellings.

There is another economic cost to this speculative frenzy: the drop in supply puts upward pressure on prices and crowds young buyers out of the market, according to Kaiji Chen, who co-authored a Fed paper called “The Great Housing Boom of China.” 

And, as Americans so fondly recall, the result of chasing unaffordable homes for the purpose of price speculation has resulted in yet another unprecedented debt bubble: according to Caixin, outstanding personal home mortgages in China have exploded sevenfold from 3 trillion yuan ($430 billion) in 2008 to 22.9 trillion yuan in 2017, according to PBOC data

By the end of September, the value of outstanding home mortgages had surged another 18% Y/Y to a record 24.9 trillion yuan, resulting in a trend that as Caixin notes, has turned many people into what are called “mortgage slaves.”

It has also resulted in yet another housing bubble: home mortgage debt now makes up more than half of total household debt in China. As of the third quarter, it accounted for 53% of the 46.2 trillion yuan in outstanding household debt.

For now, few are losing sleep over what will be the next massive housing bubble to burst. An example of a vacant home is a villa on the outskirts of Shanghai that 27-year-old Natalie Feng’s parents bought for her. The two-story residence was meant to be a weekend escape for the family of three. In reality, it’s empty most of the time, and Feng says it’s too much trouble to rent it out.

“For every weekend we spend there, we need to drive for an hour first, and clean up for half a day,” Feng said. She joked that she sometimes wishes her parents hadn’t bought it for her in the first place. That’s because any apartment she buys now would count as a second home, which means she’d have to make a bigger down payment.

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What is troubling is that despite relatively stable home prices, the foundations behind the housing market are cracking. As the WSJ recently reported, in early December, a group of homeowners stormed the sales office of their Shanghai complex, “Central Washington”, whose developer, Shanghai Zhaoping Real Estate Development, was advertising new apartments at a fraction of the prices of the ones sold earlier in the year. One apartment owner said the new prices suggested the value of the apartment she bought from the developer in March had dropped by about 17.5%.

“There are people who bought multiple homes who are now trying to sell one to pay off the mortgage on another,” said Ran Yunjie, a property agent. One of his clients bought an apartment last year for about $230,000. To find a buyer now, the client would have to drop the price by 60%, according to Ran.

Meanwhile, in a truly concerning demonstration of what will happen when the bubble finally bursts, last month we reported that angry homeowners who paid full price for units at the Xinzhou Mansion residential project in Shangrao attacked the Country Garden sales office in eastern Jiangxi province last week, after finding out it had offered discounts to new buyers of up to 30%.

“Property accounts for roughly 70 per cent of urban Chinese families’ total assets – a home is both wealth and status. People don’t want prices to increase too fast, but they don’t want them to fall too quickly either,” said Shao Yu, chief economist at Oriental Securities. “People are so used to rising prices that it never occurred to them that they can fall too. We shouldn’t add to this illusion,” Shao added, echoing Ben Bernanke circa 2005.

But the biggest surprise once the music finally stops may be that – as a fascinating WSJ report revealed one year ago –  China’s housing downturn is likely far, far worse than meets the eye, as under Beijing’s direction more than 200 cities across China for the last three years have been buying surplus apartments from property developers and moving in families from condemned city blocks and nearby villages. China’s Housing Ministry, which is behind the purchases, said it plans to continue the program through 2020. The strategy, supported by central-government bank lending, has rescued housing developers and lifted the property market.

In other words, while China already has a record 50 million empty apartments, the real number – when excluding the government’s own stealthy purchases of excess inventory – is likely significantly higher. It is this, and not China’s stock market, that has long been the biggest time bomb for Beijing, and if Trump and Peter Navarro truly want to crush China in their ongoing trade war, they should focus on destabilizing the housing market: the Chinese stock market was, and remains just a distraction.

To summarize:

  • China has more than 50 million vacant apartments
  • Mortgage loans have grown 8-fold in the past decade
  • Prices are kept steady thanks to constant government purchases of surplus inventory
  • Home prices are already cracking, with some homebuilders forced to cut prices by 30%.
  • Homebuyers revolt, forming angry militias and storm homesellers’ offices when prices dip

For now, China has been able to maintain the illusion of stability to preserve social order. However, should the housing slowdown accelerate significantly and tens of millions in empty units suddenly hit the market, then the “working class insurrection” that China has been preparing for since 2014…

… will become an overnight reality, with dire consequences for the entire world.

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