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Politburo Proposals Spark Optimism in China’s Troubled Property Market

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China Power | Economy | East Asia

Politburo Proposals Spark Optimism in China’s Troubled Property Market

Despite positive market reactions, true recovery awaits deep fiscal and tax reforms anticipated at the upcoming Third Plenum.

Politburo Proposals Spark Optimism in China’s Troubled Property Market
Credit: Depositphotos

Amid eroding market confidence and an escalating surplus of housing inventories, Beijing has reaffirmed its dedication to revitalizing its faltering property sector. A pivotal Politburo meeting recently outlined new strategies aimed at reducing the oversupply of existing homes and promoting new housing developments. The announcement was met with enthusiasm in financial circles, evidenced by a significant uptick in developer shares. The response pushed the Hang Seng Mainland Properties Index to a yearly high increase.

At the heart of the government’s refreshed approach is an initiative that permits local authorities to convert unsold housing units into social housing. Although details are scant, it is speculated that the policy could resemble a “trade-in” scheme, where residents may exchange their older homes for vouchers, which are then usable as down payments on new properties. The older properties would subsequently undergo renovation and be repurposed, potentially alleviating the inventory glut and rejuvenating the resale market.

However, the initial market response might be excessively optimistic. The property sector continues to face severe, enduring challenges. Now in its fourth year of decline, the market has seen an unprecedented drop in home prices. The industry is grappling with liquidity issues and an increase in developer defaults, illustrating the depth of its systemic malaises.

Furthermore, the Politburo’s proposed measures are not without precedent. They mirror initiatives from a decade earlier when a similar surplus prompted a downturn, leading to widespread insolvencies among developers and a 30 percent reduction in local government land sales revenues. The response then also involved disbursing cash compensations to displaced residents, thereby encouraging sales in new developments. While this approach initially helped decrease inventory levels, it inadvertently led to property prices surges in lower-tier cities as demand soon outstripped supply.

Past cooling measures meant to temper real estate fever unintentionally overcorrected the market and led to the current downturn. With the property market confronting similar challenges to those it faced a decade ago, the government’s reintroduction of “de-stocking” rhetoric appears insufficient, given China’s now much saturated demand, as evidenced by higher rates of both urbanization and household property ownership.

The magnitude and complexity of the current crisis poses challenges far greater than any previously encountered. By the close of 2023, the market was burdened with over 3 billion square meters of unsold residential property. Estimates suggest that it will take approximately 3.6 years to absorb this inventory at the prevailing sales rate. 

Despite enhanced governmental efforts since mid-2023, the impact of these policies has been modest. Measures have ranged from relaxing mortgage conditions to removing restrictions on multiple home purchases in less central districts of Beijing, with similar relaxations anticipated in major cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen. However, these segmented and restricted policies have not significantly revitalized sales nor secured a lasting influence on the sector. Ongoing defaults and court-mandated liquidations among developers underscore the enduring challenges. 

The ineffectiveness of Beijing’s interventions can largely be attributed to a significant erosion of consumer confidence, exacerbated by increased credit risks and restrictive financing conditions for developers. This cycle of declining buyer interest and escalating liquidity crises poses a considerable threat to the stability of the real estate sector. Traditional methods of stimulating demand, such as interest rate adjustments, have proven inadequate. Prospective buyers are more concerned with the financial stability of developers than with modest economic incentives. Additionally, the financial constraints faced by many local governments impede the effective implementation of these measures, further compounding the challenges in a sector already burdened by high debt and sluggish sales.

Recent reports have highlighted resident frustrations over delays and uncertainty in receiving government-promised housing subsidies or disbursements. Whether the strategy involves acquiring existing properties or facilitating “old-for-new” exchanges, such efforts place further strain on already heavily indebted local governments. 

Given the financial predicaments of many local governments, it may become necessary for state-owned entities or urban investment firms to acquire existing residential properties for conversion into affordable housing. The extent of funding that the central government is prepared to commit through special bonds to support these local “inventory absorption” efforts is also a critical point of market focus.

Fundamentally, the dynamics of China’s property market are inextricably linked to the fiscal and tax framework, which places an uneven burden on local governments. These authorities rely heavily on land sales for revenue, which contributes to cycles of property market booms and busts. Conversely, strict regulatory measures by the central government often lead to abrupt market corrections, perpetuating volatility.

In response, the agenda for the upcoming Third Plenum – now scheduled for July 2024 – is expected to prioritize the reform of fiscal and tax systems. This is deemed essential not only to address immediate market fluctuations but also to establish a foundation for long-term economic stability and growth across China’s regions.

To stabilize the market and alter the prevalent “wait-and-see” attitude among potential buyers, assertive and effective short- to mid-term policy measures are crucial. Yet, the only long-term solution for restoring the health of China’s property market lies in deep fiscal and tax policy reforms. These reforms would not only address immediate imbalances but also lay down a more robust economic foundation for the broader economy.