Meet China's Housing Debt Slaves
Think Americans are the only people in the world toiling under a gargantuan, and unrepayable, debtload, which at last check was a massive $55.3 trillion, or about $175K per person? Think again. Meet Sherry Sheng, a 29-year-old Shanghai policewoman, who bought herself a 4,000 yuan ($642) black fur jacket, splurging for the last time before she starts paying off the mortgage on her first home.
Sherry is what is known as a Chinese "housing slave."
Sheng is part of a generation of middle class that Chinese media has dubbed “fang nu,” or housing slaves, a reference to the lifetime of work needed to pay off their debts. They’re taking on mortgages even as the government maintains property curbs to damp prices that have almost tripled since China embarked in 1998 on a drive to increase private home ownership.
“It’s a treat for myself because I could never afford such a luxury after I start repaying my housing loans next month,” said Sheng, who paid 1.1 million yuan for the one-bedroom apartment on the city’s western outskirts and will be using about 70 percent of her salary to service her mortgage.
China’s growing middle class reaching for homeownership helped property prices rebound starting in the second half of last year. They rose 1 percent in January from December, the biggest gain in two years, according to real estate website SouFun Holdings Ltd. Home prices in Beijing and Shanghai each rose 2.3 percent from December.
Average per-square-meter prices in 100 cities tracked by SouFun are five times average monthly disposable incomes. A 100- square-meter (1,076-square-foot) apartment today costs about 40 years’ annual income, according to SouFun and government data, even as salaries have more than quadrupled since 1998.
Sheng was able to buy her 50-square-meter apartment after borrowing a combined 770,000 yuan through a 20-year mortgage from Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. and a 15-year loan from the local housing providence fund. Her parents helped with the 30 percent down payment. She will repay about 4,000 yuan a month for the home, a one-hour subway ride from central Shanghai’s historic Bund that cost 16 times her annual salary, based on the apartment price and her income.
Chinese homebuyers typically use 30 percent to 50 percent of their monthly incomes to repay mortgages, said Wu Hao, a manager at the loan brokerage of Bacic & 5i5j Group, Beijing’s second-biggest realtor for existing homes. It advises clients to keep monthly repayments lower than one-third of their incomes.
The “general guideline” among Chinese banks is that a borrower’s salary should be at least twice their monthly payment; otherwise they’ll be asked to submit proof of assets, such as property, cars, or insurance to show their ability to service the debt, Wu said. Using 70 percent of monthly income to pay the mortgage is “very rare,” she said.
Why do we bring this up? Because the Chinese housing bubble is now the biggest it has ever been; according to some it is even bigger on a relative basis compared to the US housing bubble (either in 2007 or 2013).
The property market has already “heated up,” while home prices in major cities may rise as much as 10 percent in the next three months, said Johnson Hu, a Hong Kong-based property analyst at CIMB-GK Securities Research, in an interview.
Loose monetary policy will drive housing prices and sales up in the near term, Hong Kong-based Jinsong Du, Credit Suisse Group AG’s head of property research, wrote in a report Feb. 18.
The new government may introduce more property curbs when it takes power in March. China may tighten credit policies for people buying a second home or raise the tax on gains on transactions of existing homes in the most affluent, or so- called tier-one cities, the China Securities Journal reported Feb. 1, citing an unidentified person.
Home sales in China’s 10 biggest cities almost quadrupled to 8.5 million square meters in the first five weeks from last year, property data and consulting firm China Real Estate Information Corp. said in an e-mailed statement Feb. 19.
Once it was tulips. Now, it's houses.
Chinese urban residents’ average disposable income rose 12.6 percent last year to 2,047 yuan a month, according to the statistics bureau. The average one-square-meter of new floor space cost 9,715 yuan in December, according to SouFun.
The shift to private home ownership stems from reforms started in 1998, when then Premier Zhu Rongji privatized state- owned housing provided at low rents to urbanites, transferring home ownership from the government to the families occupying the dwellings. About 230 million people moved to cities in the 2000- 2011 period, the biggest urbanization in history, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The idea of buying a property with borrowed money didn’t become popular until 2004 when home prices in major cities started rising fast enough to compensate for interest payments, enticing buyers to borrow to buy property, said Liu Yuan, a Shanghai-based researcher at Centaline Property Agency Ltd., China’s biggest real estate brokerage.
Today about 50 percent to 70 percent of home buyers in the first-tier cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou use mortgages, borrowing an average 50 percent of a home’s value, according to Centaline.
Which is why, perhaps more even than the US, China is truly stuck between a rock and a hard place - on one hand it can not afford a real estate bubble pop as it would make the millions of debt slaves into millions of far poorer, deleveraging and in many cases, broke, debt slaves, and lead to the downfall of the financial system stuck holding mortgages that no longer generate cash flows. On the other hand, inflation is already resurgent, and as the recent halt to reverse repos shows, China is this close to a repeat of the spring of 2011, when it lost control of inflation, and had to demand that global central banks end their reflation effort for fears what hot money flows would do to its social stability.
Worst of all, however, is that in the pursuit of the great Chinese dream, more and more housing slaves will emerge, beholden to a insolvent system reliant on constantly creating over $100 billion in new liabilities (i.e., deposits) per month. Anything more than that, and you have hyperinflation; anything below that and you have a housing crash. And since Goldilocks only works for so long, when the PBOC finally veers off course, it will be the "Sherries" in China left holding the bag. A very empty bag.