Putting house prices in order

By Yi Xianrong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, May 12, 2014
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Housing authorities of Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, issued a document in late April that said residents with a hukou (household registration) in any of its five neighboring cities, such as Beihai, Qinzhou and Yulin, could buy homes in Nanning.

Hitting rock bottom [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

 Hitting rock bottom [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

According to media reports, this is the first shot formally fired by a local government to rescue the housing market. To prevent speculation in the housing market and keep property prices in check, authorities in major cities have for years banned non-local residents from buying houses within their jurisdictions. Some earlier media reports had said that cities like Changsha, Hangzhou, Zhengzhou and Wenzhou were likely to relax rules for buying houses but relevant authorities denied them.

Some local governments, like the one in Nanning, however, have joined the race to relax rules for purchasing houses because they want to prevent housing prices from dropping steeply, for they fear that that will not only cause a drop in the local GDP, but also increase their fiscal risks manyfold.

Over the past few years, land sales or bank loans against land mortgages have been behind the excessive credit expansion of many local governments. These local governments now fear that a drop in housing prices will dampen demand and thus reduce their fiscal revenues. They believe that only a rising - or at least a stable - housing market can cover their swollen fiscal and debt risks.

Given these conditions, can measures such as easing the requirements for purchasing houses in some cities guarantee the housing market's health? We can be pretty sure that housing prices in China have entered a "period of adjustment" after rising to dangerously high levels. In fact, we can expect a different type of price adjustment because housing prices are not likely to rise any further after going through the roof in the past decade.

Since price increase has greatly influenced homebuyers' expectations over the years, it is difficult to stop speculators from entering the housing market by just passing some administrative measures. For example, when the Beijing local government imposed a conditional ban on certain groups of people from buying houses in the city in 2011, an underground ring sprang up immediately to help unqualified homebuyers bypass the ban if they paid a "fee". Similarly, at a time when most potential homebuyers expect housing prices to fall, how can local authorities entice them into buying houses at current prices?

More importantly, the ongoing changes in the housing market are not the short-term results of the macro-regulations the country adopted a few years ago. They are more like cyclical adjustments - a result of the changing financial conditions in China and abroad - which will be difficult to reverse irrespective of the "bailout" policies adopted by local governments.

The housing market's prosperity, to a large extent, depends on a country's financial condition and housing-related taxes. A low mortgage rate, a high leverage ratio and easy access to bank loans will create a prosperous housing sector - as is the case in China. But if such policies are reversed, they will bring about some mandatory changes, no matter whether bailout measures are adopted or not.

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