If the sky-high prices relative to income aren’t enough to convince you, consider this discussion from Patrick Chovanec (hat tip reader Michael) who contends that China’s latest effort to contain housing prices, the reinstitution of a property sales tax, is likely to be counterproductive:
In China, however, “flipping” is not the problem. Some people may be engaged in short-term ”flipping,” but as I’ve described in my FEER article “China’s Real Estate Riddle,” a lot more are buying residences — in many cases multiple units — and holding them vacant indefinitely as an unproductive ”store of value,” like gold. As I mentioned in my article, the Financial Times estimates that there are 587 million meters of apartment space that buyers have purchased over the past five years only to leave lying empty (for a concrete notion of what this statistic means, take a look at Al Jazeera’s report on Ordos). This puzzling phenomemon is due to the fact that Chinese citizens have relatively few investment options, and China’s real estate sector (unlike its stock market) has never experienced a sustained downturn since the country converted to private home ownership in the mid-1990s. The fact that China has no annual holding tax on property means there is little penalty for letting property lie idle, in the hope that it will appreciate or at least retain its value. The result is an inflated market where the demand for property as a pure investment vehicle far outstrips the demand for affordable, usable space.
If people were trying to “flip” their properties, that might actually be a good thing. At the very least, it would mean those residences would have to be brought onto the secondary market and priced. What we see in China, though, is an extremely weak secondary market. In the U.S., the ratio of secondary to primary residential property transactions for the first half of 2009 was 13.45; in Hong Kong it was 7.25. In China as a whole, that ratio was 0.26 (four times as many new home purchases as secondary sales). Even in China’s most developed markets the ratios were just 1.30 for Beijing, 1.56 for Shanghai, and 1.35 for Shenzhen. [Keep in mind that an immense quantity of existing housing stock was privatized in the 1990s, at nominal prices, so the explanation cannot be simply that China is a “new” market — China actually has a higher rate of established home ownership (80%) than the U.S. (70%)].
The way I read these figures is that an immense amount of new housing is being purchased and accumulated (in a vacant condition) off-market. Nobody has any idea what it is actually worth because there is little urgency to offer it, to end users, on the secondary market and actually see it priced based on their demand. If investors were at least trying to “flip,” we might find out, but they’re not, and so prices for new residences (especially on the high-priced luxury end) continue to rise without anything to bring them back down to earth.