Wolf Richter: Foreign “Smart Money” Frets about Turmoil at Home, Flees, Plows into US Housing Bubble 2, Thinks it’s a “Safe Haven”

Lambert: Just what we need; more 1%-ers. And if turmoil in emerging markets keeps up, we’ll have more of ’em, as conditions “at home” sharpen.

By Wolf Richter, a San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Originally published at Wolf Street.

Wealthy, very nervous foreigners yanking their money out of their countries while they still can and pouring it into US residential real estate, paying cash, and driving up home prices – that’s the meme. But it’s more than a meme as political and economic risks in key countries surge.

And home prices are being driven up. The median price of all types of homes in July, as the National Association of Realtors (NAR) sees it, jumped 5.6% from a year ago to $234,000, now 1.7% above the totally crazy June 2006 peak of the prior bubble that blew up in such splendid manner. But you can’t even buy a toolshed for that in trophy cities like San Francisco, where the median house price has reached $1.3 million.

And the role of foreign buyers?

[N]ever have so many Chinese quietly moved so much money out of the country at such a fast pace. Nowhere is that Sino capital flight more prevalent than into the US residential real estate market, where billions are rapidly pouring into the American Dream. From New York to Los Angeles, China’s nouveau riche are going on a housing shopping spree.

So begins RealtyTrac’s current Housing News Report.

“For economic and political reasons, Chinese investors want to protect their wealth by diversifying their assets by buying US real estate,” William Yu, an economist at UCLA Anderson Forecast, told RealtyTrac. “The best place for China’s smart money to invest is the United States.”

In the 12-month period ending March 2015, buyers from China have for the first time ever surpassed Canadians as the top foreign buyers, plowing $28.6 billion into US homes, at an average price of $831,800, according to the NAR. In dollar terms, Chinese buyers accounted for 27.5% of the $104 billion that foreign buyers spent on US homes. It spawned a whole industry of specialized Chinese-American brokers.

Political and economic instability in China along with the anti-corruption drive have been growing concerns for wealthy Chinese, Yu said. “China’s real estate market has peaked already. Their housing bubble has popped.”

So they’re hedging their bets to protect their wealth. And more than their wealth….

“China’s economic elites have one foot out the door, and they are ready to flee en masse if the system really begins to crumble,” explained David Shambaugh Professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

China has capital controls in place to prevent this sort of thing for the average guy. But Yu said there are ways for well-connected Chinese to transfer money to the US, particularly those with business relationships in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

But in the overall and immense US housing market, foreign buying isn’t exactly huge. According to NAR, foreign buyers acquired 209,000 homes over the 12-month period, or 4% of existing home sales. But foreign buyers go for the expensive stuff, and in dollar terms, their purchases amounted to 8% of existing home sales.

In most states, offshore money accounts for only 3% or less of total homes sales. But in four states it’s significant: Florida (21%), California (16%), Texas (8%), and Arizona (5%). And in some trophy cities in these states, the percentages are huge.

“On the residential side, Chinese buyers are looking for very specific things,” Alan Lu, owner of ALTC Realty in Alhambra, California, told RealtyTrac. “They are looking for grand houses with large footprints. And they want lots of upgrades. It’s a must. They also like new homes.”

Among California cities that are hot with Chinese investors: Alhambra, Arcadia, Irvine, Monterey Park, San Francisco, San Marino, and in recent years Orange County, “a once heavily white middle-class suburb that is now 40% Asian and becoming increasingly expensive,” according to RealtyTrac:

Buyers from China, including investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan, are driving up prices and fueling new construction in Southern California areas such as Arcadia, a city of 57,000 people with top-notch schools, a large Chinese immigrant community, and a constellation of Chinese businesses.

For example, at a new Irvine, California development Stonegate, where homes are priced at over $1 million, upwards of 80% of the buyers in the new Arcadia development are overseas Chinese, according to Bloomberg….

Similar dynamics are playing out in New York.

“In Manhattan, we estimate that 15% of all transactions are to foreign buyers,” Jonathan Miller, president of New York real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel Inc., told RealtyTrac. “Luxury real estate is the new global currency,” he said. “Foreigners are putting their cash into a hard asset.” And they see US real estate as “global safe haven.”

And then there’s Florida, where offshore money accounts for 25% of all real estate sales, twice as high as in California, according to a join report by the Florida Realtors and NAR. In 2014, foreigners gobbled up 26,500 properties for $8 billion. Based on data by the Miami Downtown Development Authority, offshore money powered 90% of residential real estate sales in downtown Miami.

In other places it isn’t quite that high….

“About 70% of our buyers are foreign, but recently there’s definitely been a slowdown in the international buyer market,” explained Lisa Miller, owner of Keller Williams Elite Realty in Aventura, Florida. “We still have a large amount of Latin American buyers, but the Russian buyers have dropped off,” she said, pointing at the fiasco in the Ukraine, the plunging ruble, and the sanctions on Russia.

But there’s a little problem:

“We have an enormous amount of condo inventory in South Florida,” Miller said. “We have 357 condo towers either going up or planned in South Florida. We have a ton of condo inventory.”

Brazilians are among the top buyers in South Florida’s luxury condo market. “Brazilians like the water,” explained Giovanni Freitas, a broker associate with The Keyes Company in Miami. “They love to shop. They want high-end properties. They also buy the most expensive properties. And they love brand-name products.”

Capital flight accounts for 80% of his Brazilian business, he said; Brazilians are fretting over the economy at home and the left-leaning policies of President Dilma Rousseff. Miami Beach is a magnet for them. For instance, according to NBC, they own nearly half of the condos at the W South Beach.

Other nationalities, including Canadian snowbirds, play a role as well. Even the Japanese. They’re increasingly worried about their government’s dedication to resolving its insurmountable debt problem by crushing the yen. Miyuki Fujiwara, an agent with the Keyes Company in Miami, told RealtyTrac: “Many of my Japanese customers buy two or three condo units at a time.”

But problems are already piling up. Every spot is unique. In South Florida, it’s 357 condo towers popping up. In San Francisco, it’s the stock market. Read… Housing Affordability in San Francisco & Bay Area Plunges; Stocks, Interest Rates Could Trigger Epic Bust

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.