Last March, we discussed why few things are as important for China’s wealth effect and economy, as its housing
bubble market. Specifically, as Deutsche Bank calculated at the time, “in 2016 the rise of property prices boosted household wealth in 37 tier 1 and tier 2 cities by RMB24 trillion, almost twice their total disposable income of RMB12.9 trillion.” The German lender added that this (rather fleeting) wealth effect “may be helping to sustain consumption in China despite slowing income growth” warning that “a decline of property price would obviously have a large negative impact.”
Naturally, as long as the housing bubble keeps inflating and prices keep rising, there is nothing to worry about as the population will keep spending money buoyed by illusory wealth appreciation. It is when housing starts to drop that Beijing begins to panic.
Fast forward to today, when Beijing may be starting to sweat because whereas Chinese property developers usually count on September and October to be their “gold and silver” months for sales, this year has turned out to be different. As the SCMP reports, not only were sales figures grim for September, but the seven-day national holiday last week also brought at least two “fangnao” incidents – when angry, and often violent, homeowners protest against price cuts offered by developers to new buyers.
These protests are often directed at sales offices, with varying levels of intensity – from throwing rocks to holding banners and putting up funeral wreaths. The risk, of course, is that as what has gone up (wealth effect) will come down, and as home ownership has remained the most important channel of investment for urban households in China in the past decade, price cuts have become increasingly unacceptable and a cause for social unrest.
Just last week, 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%.
A similar incident took place in suburban Shanghai, where the same developer slashed prices at another project called One Mansion by a quarter.
While the protests have been isolated so far, the risk is that the greater the slide in property prices, the more widespread popular anger will become:
“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.
Or fall at all, for that matter.
While China’s stock market has had its ups and down, along the way accompanied by various “rolling” bubbles affecting assored Chinese assets, China’s property market has soared since the 2000s making home ownership the quickest way to gain wealth. In Beijing, homes that went for an average of around 4,000 yuan (US$580) per square metre in 2003 are now above 60,000 yuan (US$8,600) a square metre, according to property price data provider creprice.cn.
And, in a page right out of Ben Bernanke’s playbook, who in 2005 claimed that “we’ve never had a decline in housing prices on a nationwide basis” and as a result never would, what is now taking place in China is nothing short of a shock to the general population: “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 said.
Meanwhile, dreading that this moment would eventually come, the government has been working on measures to cool property prices for years, calling residential real estate not only an economic issue but also “an important issue for people’s livelihoods that influences social stability”, in a directive back in 2010.
And while the industry remained strong in the first eight months of the year it started slowing last month, according to data provider China Real Estate Information Corp. Official statistics showed that in Shangrao, where the violent protest occurred, transactions of homes last month fell by 22% from August and 18% from the same month last year. In Shanghai, sales in the past five weeks have risen slightly from the same period last year, but average prices dropped in September by over 3% from August and 1.4% from the same period last year.
Quoted by SCMP, Zhang Dawei, chief analyst at Centaline Property, warned that not only were the overall sales dropping, but poor construction quality could also be a cause for more violence. “Try not to buy homes built in 2018, because while the developers were short of money, the same is the case with contractors,” he said, and had an even more ominous warning about what’s coming: “The fourth quarter would be a peak time for residential project completion. Issues which used to be papered over by rising prices could erupt in this period… so we should look out for a sudden surge [public violence] in the coming months.”
Ultimately, it’s all a question of public expectations: expectations that have been number following years of government bailouts and bubble reflating, making sure that every single drop in housing was promptly offset. Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based economist, said despite China’s market-oriented reforms 40 years ago, investors still lacked respect for market and social rules.
“They don’t have the spirit of contract, and they always think they can fight against the rules,” he said. “As a commodity, the value of homes can both rise and fall. Investors should obey this fundamental rule.”
But why should they if until recently, policymakers did everything in their power to avoid them this simplest of lessons.
To be sure, public anger at falling prices is hardly new. Rampaging against price cuts was first seen in 2011, when homebuyers of a residential project named Oriental Rose in Beijing’s Tongzhou district mobbed a Huaye sales office after the firm cut prices by a tenth.
Similar incidents have erupted whenever investors have found their property value depreciating. And, in a country where there are relatively fewer investment channels and an unpredictable stock market, such protests are always couched as a struggle to protect individual rights. In many such cases, protesters demand compensation or cancellation of their purchase, and in order to prevent further social disorder, developers often accept their demands.
In other words, moral hazard in China is so pervasive, it threatens the very fabric of society.
Wang Cailiang, director of the Beijing Cailiang Law Firm, said although fangnao was against the law, the government had tolerated such protests because it was ultimately responsible for the surging prices; and it is better to punt to the real estate company than being forced to directly bailout consumers.
“It was the government that pushed up the prices by profiting from selling land to developers in the past two decades,” he said. “Now public anger over home prices has become a major social issue.”
At a meeting of the Communist Party’s Politburo in late July, top officials reiterated that “containing home price gains” would be a priority in the second half of the year. Of course, if home price losses accelerate to the downside, Beijing will have no choice but to scramble and reflate another bubble, even as the Trump administration scrutinizes every monetary and fiscal decision by Beijing with a fine toothed comb.
Meanwhile, anger is only set to grow, the only question is whether it will be a slow boil or a violent eruption. Economist Shao expected average home prices to drop slightly in the coming months as the government continued efforts to control them. In the first two weeks of September, growth was close to stagnating in 40 major cities across the mainland with the total number of new home sales up by just 1% from the previous month, according to China Real Estate Information Corp data.
Should this slowdown accelerate significantly to the downside, then the “working class insurrection” that China has been preparing for since 2014…
… will finally materialize with dire consequences for the entire world.