For whom the bubble blows
House prices are soaring in big cities, but oversupply plagues much of the country
SHANGHAI, China’s financial centre, does not make it easy on outsiders wishing to buy homes. Non-residents who are single are banned from buying property. The married are welcome but only so long as they have paid local taxes for two years and make nearly a third of the purchase in cash. Shenyang, China’s biggest northern city, is far more welcoming. Anyone can buy a home there. All to little effect: housing prices in Shanghai, five times more expensive than those in Shenyang, have risen by 20% over the past year; those in the northern city have edged down.
This bifurcation is a worry for the government, which wants to spur growth without inflating bubbles. A divergence in housing prices between wealthy cities and the hinterland is a familiar problem in other countries—just look at London and Lincolnshire, say, or New York and Nebraska. But the divisions are starker in China. In its most prosperous cities, already giddy prices continue to shoot up, while unsold flats pile up in markets where valuations were low to begin with. Moreover, construction has long been one of the economy’s main engines, accounting for as much as a quarter of GDP growth until recently. This makes it especially important that the government get the balance right. Doing so is proving hard.
Over the past half-year, the government has unveiled a series of measures to support the housing market that specifically exclude China’s five hottest markets (Beijing, Guangzhou, Sanya, Shanghai and Shenzhen). People buying homes need only make a 20% down-payment to obtain a mortgage, except in the five conurbations, where they must put down 30%. By the same token, in most of the country transaction taxes have been cut by as much as two-thirds for people buying second homes; in the five outliers they have been left unchanged. In Shenzhen, a southern tech hub that is the frothiest market, with prices up by 53% in the past year alone, local officials have vowed to crack down on speculators and expand the supply of affordable housing.