There were 4.7 billion square metres of housing under construction but not yet available for sale at the end of last year, up by 25% from the end of 2011; 452 million square metres of housing were on sale, nearly three times as much as at the end of 2011. Some provinces and cities are drafting plans to convert unsold homes into subsidised housing for poorer residents. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has said that reducing property inventory is a “battle of annihilation” that must be won to revitalise the economy. Revived demand for new construction, in short, is a long way off.
The exception is sure to be China’s biggest cities, where there clearly is an imbalance between supply and demand. Shenzhen and Shanghai, in particular, are popular with the young and the highly educated, just the kinds of people that push up housing prices. They are two of China’s best-run cities, offering good transport links, good jobs and, by Chinese standards, good air. Unsold housing inventories cover just about five months of demand at the current pace of sales, indicating that more construction is needed.
Even with these strong fundamentals, it is hard to justify a 50% surge in housing prices over the past year. Regulators suspect that there has been some foul play. This week they said they would target online lenders that have made loans to homebuyers to cover their down-payments; these loans have, in theory, allowed speculators to buy homes entirely with borrowed cash, in contravention of the minimum down-payment requirements.
But reining in animal spirits is a hard task. At the Baoshan Property Trading Centre, where people buying homes in a district of northern Shanghai must go to register their purchases, crowds have swelled to such a size that the local government has deployed police to keep the peace. On one recent day a phalanx of security officers in white helmets stood guard alongside barricades as people lined up to submit their documentation. One of those queuing, Wang Jie, bought a new apartment for 2m yuan ($307,000) in October, and has watched its value soar by another 1m since then. “No one seems to buy when prices are falling,” he chuckled. “But everyone does when they start rising.”