15 June 2014
Concerns over a real estate bubble in China
For decades, China was referred to as the “sleeping giant.” This reference is to the great potential impact of the country, its vast population, and its economy, but also to the fact that this potential was largely unrealized for hundreds of years. Well, the sleeping giant is awake! And the world financial press is now full of analysts following China and the international ramifications of its every action on the world economy.
Recently, great concern has been raised by some over the impact of the stalling Chinese economy as it drops from double-digit growth in GDP to 7.5% or less. Alarm has been raised about the bubble in the Chine real estate markets, particularly the housing, and now commercial real estate as well. And most recently, financial analysts worry about the shadow banking system (financing and loans by non-banks) and Chinese real estate companies’ interest in purchasing banks or substantial interests in them.
Some suggest that Chinese construction companies’ investments in banks may be with a view to getting easier loans on more questionable deals, and that when real estate projects sour, they could take down both the construction companies and their banks. Is this reminiscent of the S&L crisis and the Japanese bubble of the 1980s?
Let’s separate the issues — real estate company investment in banks and shadow banking
To begin with, one must clearly define the activity being analyzed, who the players are, and the market in which the activity is taking place. For example, current reports detail investments by Chinese real estate development companies in banks located in mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere. Some of these investments are modest. Some of them are significant. Some of them appear to be newly capitalized banks with IPOs financed largely by the real estate construction companies (taking the “p” out of “IPO”).
Each country has its unique set of government and regulatory controls. It is difficult to generalize the motivation of the Chinese real estate companies in making banking investments, whether and how they will attempt to deal with the banks they have invested in, and how regulators will respond in each affected jurisdiction as to particular investments and related activities.
Will this be like the Japanese investment bubble of the 1980s or the S&L crisis?
At least two situations may serve as case studies to provide some historical perspective on the new phenomenon of Chinese real estate companies investing in banks, and the shadow banking situation. One is the US real estate bubble of the 1980s followed by the Savings and Loan (S&L) and banking crisis with more bank failures than any time since the Great Depression. The other somewhat intertwined event is the Japanese investment (by banks and related Japanese construction companies) of up to $120 billion in United States real estate (primarily in Hawaii, California, and New York), and subsequently “disinvestment” in the collapse of the early 1990s. Many believe that the Japanese investment was made at what otherwise would have been the peak of the US real estate bubble (carried by loose S&L lending and tax-driven investments that made no economic sense). The Japanese investment propelled the U.S. real estate bubble even higher for several years until the it finally became unsustainable, and collapsed in a worse crash than might otherwise have resulted.
Both the S&L crisis and the Japanese investment phenomena displayed cozy relationships of real estate companies and lenders. The Japanese banks owned significant holdings in their borrower clients, and encouraged them to buy market share with below-market loans. When the real estate market soured, the Japanese banks were hit with the double whammy of huge loans on real estate now worth a fraction of its cost, and stock investments in companies with huge losses. The leverage increased the pain for everyone participating and the lost decade (or two) has followed for Japan.
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