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The measure that central ministries are understood to have agreed to regulate foreign real estate investment signals the government's resolve to stabilize house prices, but its real effect remains uncertain.

According to media reports, six central ministries are set to finalize a rule that says foreign house buyers must register their real names. The rule also includes a series of other restrictions on market entrance standards, development and real estate corporate mergers involving foreign investors.

Although the authorities have yet to publicly confirm this news, a number of scholars and government officials have expressed concerns in the past few months about the free flow of foreign funds into the red-hot domestic real estate market.

Their stance could well be seen as a prelude to government action, with the possibility of an announcement on the final version of the rules coming in the next few days.

As usual, the rule would be implemented by local governments, which are consistently obsessed with attracting foreign investment and boosting housing development to improve their standing and fatten local coffers.

The effect of the rule, in the first place, would depend on the ability of the central policy-makers to rein in local governments' house development mania.

The policy-makers must also devise detailed measures to prevent local governments, foreign investors, banks and other local interests from colluding to circumvent the new rule. We have had enough such experiences.

Foreign investment, on the other hand, does not take a large proportion of China's real estate market. Despite the controversial and often conflicting statistics regarding the sector, a general consensus is that it accounts for about 15 percent of the domestic market.

But such a small proportion does not mean equally small risks. Since the investment is concentrated in some big cities and aimed to take advantage of the expected renminbi revaluation, it is quite speculative and helps push up local property prices.

Therefore, it is advisable for the government to keep a close eye on foreign investors in the real estate industry, although it may not need to take further and stricter measures.

To effectively slow down the growth of the real estate industry, the government should maintain its focus on the domestic side.

Excessive bank credit, the enthusiasm of the local governments to gain from real estate development and the lack of proper investment channels for the public are behind this runaway real estate investment.

In the first five months of this year, for example, loans for domestic real estate developers increased by a stunning 42.9 percent, up 34.2 percentage points year-on-year.

Tasks on the domestic front are much more challenging than regulating foreign investment.

(China Daily July 19, 2006)

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