SWAT Team Rescues Chinese Developer from Furious Customers
This week, a SWAT police team at least 20 strong descended on the sales office of a property developer in Zhejiang Province.
Despite Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption, they weren't there to arrest the executives for bribing government officials to get sweetheart deals on land. They weren't there to bust them for raising money illegally from private investors through China's "shadow banking" system.
They were there because the developer was offering a deal on new homes.
As many as 100 customers had been protesting at the sales office of New Century Real Estate, a home builder based in the town of Taizhou. Many buyers complained they had been pushed into negative equity after the developer cut prices by 30 percent.
Some complained they had been "cheated" by the developer, and there had earlier been scuffles in the company's showroom when they staked their case. Some of the aggrieved customers were kicked, literally, and kicked out by guards.
This has been construed as a sign that China's property market is under severe stress, possible on the point of breaking. "If its [the developer's] rumored financial troubles are correct, then it would represent a significantly bigger problem than markets have been anticipating," The Australian Financial Review concluded.
The article quoted Société Générale economist Yao Wei as saying the market in a number of cities "is not just cooling but actually cracking."
Rather than a sign that China's housing market is on the brink of disaster, the need to call in police officers, some armed with machine guns, is in fact a sign of the schizophrenic, and occasionally psychotic, nature of China's economy.
On the one hand, China has in many ways become the biggest capitalist country in the world, albeit topped by a Communist government. On the other, Chinese citizens still have a warped sense of what it means to operate in a market economy.
Only in a nation where inefficient, badly run and often corrupt state-owned enterprises have been propped up for generations would a home buyer who has been undercut when prices fall believe that he or she has been "conned" or ripped off. Buyers in developed economies may not be happy about the situation. But they accept that the market works that way.
This is not the first time violence has broken out in China over home-price cuts. In 2011, 400 homeowners took to the streets of Shanghai and smashed up the showroom of a property developer, a unit of China Overseas Holdings, for cutting prices. There have, in fact, been numerous such situations.
Developers have been offering discounts on new properties in Hong Kong, where the market is in remission. The deals often undercut prices in the secondary market surrounding their new projects. Sun Hung Kai Properties, for instance, launched its Mount One development in the New Territories town of Fanling at rates that, at their cheapest, are 16 percent lower than the one-year-old Green Code project in the same area.
Hong Kongers, rather than rampaging to Hong Kong Island and looting the Sun Hung Kai Centre, would rather get out their calculators and work out whether or not the new development is a bargain. Shih Wing-ching, the founder of Centaline Property Agency, one of the "big three" brokerages in the city, lamented: "Home prices would have to drop 40 to 50 percent before they become affordable."
Coincidentally, Nobel laureate Robert Shiller was in China at the same time the drama in Taizhou was beginning to unfold.
Shiller won the prize for economics in 2013 with Eugene Fama and Lars Hansen for their groundbreaking work on analyzing asset prices. Even Shiller, who correctly forecast both the dot.com crash and the subprime disasters, struggles to understand Chinese real estate.
"China is in such a rapid growth period, it is very hard to price assets when growth is at the high level," he said. Only a stable economy allows you to price things properly, he added.
Will China see a meltdown like the subprime disaster? "It could, and I am not predicting it," he said, noting that Chinese people don't have many other places to put their money.
They don't. But they need to spend it wisely, and like buyers anywhere else, on good-quality, well-located homes.
There are 60,000 developers in China. Property analysts note that many should, in fact, need, to go out of business. The big, successful developers should gain at their expense. In fact, only if that happens, and only if developers cut prices, will China NOT have a property bubble. Bubbles develop when everyone believes prices only move one way.
Chinese home buyers are, however, learning that property prices don't always move in one way. And that, far from the beginning of the end and the start of China's descent into chaos, financial ruin, civil war, is a good thing.