A few days ago we finally closed the door on any argument who the marginal buyer in the US luxury housing segment was - the answer: Chinese oligarchs, scrambling to launder their "hot" domestic money abroad (as we predicted first two years ago) and now that Switzerland is no longer a safe offshore venue where one can park cash, they picked US luxury housing as the best money laundering alternative.
This means that far from indicating a recovery, as the recent surge in the high end of the US housing segment had long been touted, all the relentless move higher in ultraluxury properties prices was simply a recycling of China's hot money, which unlike in the US, never made its way into the Chinese stock market (explaining why the Shanghai Composite has barely budged in years) and merely ended up in US real estate. If anything, this is simply another confirmation of the epic capital misallocation, and the complete lack of "trickle down" resulting from failed global central banking policies.
So now that the "who" has been answered, just one question remained: "how?"
How did millions of Chinese "buyers" manage to get tens of billions of yuan or dollars out of the mainland - a country which as is well-known has strict capital controls when it comes to individual and corporate offshore outflows? Under Chinese law, citizens are allowed take only the equivalent of US$50,000 out of the country each year: hardly enough to buy a storage closet in any of New York City's Central Park West duplexes.
Today we learn the answer and it has to do with officially sanctioned "money laundering" services by not one but two of China's largest banks: Bank of China and also Citic.
As Hong Kong's SCMP reports, A day after Bank of China (BOC) was accused by China's state broadcaster of breaking foreign exchange rules by helping people take money out of the country, it has emerged a second state bank has also been offering the service.
And the biggest irony is that Citic is ultimately controlled by none other than the "State Council" or China itself. In other words, while China was prohibiting the outflow of hot money with one hand, with the other it was providing the very services it had previously forbidden!.
Industry sources told the South China Morning Post yesterday that China Citic Bank - controlled by the Citic Group, which in turn is directly controlled by the State Council, China's cabinet - also facilitated the movement of currency overseas, including Hong Knog. "It is definitely not an illegal business," said one source.
"Both BOC and Citic Bank have been able to do this business only after they got approval from the Guangzhou branch of the People's Bank of China. So the PBOC definitely knows what the business is about," said the source, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
"If there is any problem, it should not be a problem about whether this business is legal or illegal but more about how exactly the business is done, especially about internal risk controls and customer background checks at those banks."
On Wednesday, CCTV aired footage showing an employee of a BOC branch in Guangdong coaching an undercover journalist on how to channel large sums of money overseas.
CCTV accused the bank of "blatantly offering money laundering services" and fabricating information through its money transfer platform Youhuitong.
BOC said the Youhuitong service was part of a legal pilot scheme launched in 2011. It said the CCTV report "deviated from the facts" and had a "biased understanding" of Youhuitong.
What is disturbing is the implication that the PBOC not only was aware of these secretive and law-breaking deals, but was effectively encouraging them:
On the sidelines of the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing yesterday, PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan said the central bank would need more time to investigate the situation.
Analysts cast doubt on whether such a scheme that allowed for free currency exchange could exist. "The government is very concerned about hot money flows," said Teo Weechoon, a forex analyst at Nomura in Singapore. "If there was a pilot programme like this, I don't think the limit would be much higher than it already is."
Industry sources said BOC and Citic Bank were chosen by the Guangzhou branch of the central bank in late 2011 and late 2012 respectively to join the pioneer programme, which was part of Beijing's efforts to better manage its huge foreign exchange reserves - the world's largest at over US$4 trillion.
And sure enough, where two of the largest Chinese banks were involved, many other were sure to follow: "a report by the official Shanghai Securities News yesterday said China Construction Bank offered similar services." We expect to learn soon that virtually every domestic bank was breaking regulations, with the PBOC's blessing of course, and allowing residents to quietly transfer their funds from China to the US, London, Zurich and any other venue where Chinese oligarchs wanted to park their cash.
Well, from the individual's standpoint taking money away from China's corrupt system and "investing" it in the US housing market certainly seems like far more safe proposition.
But why would the PBOC agree to quietly bless this activity which it has, at least openly, blasted vocally in the past?
Simple - to keep inflation in check.
Recall that China is a country which creates nearly $4 trillion in bank deposits every year. Also recall that back in 2011 China nearly chocked when inflation briefly soared out of control, leading to sporadic "Arab Spring" type riots in various cities. And since China simply can not reduce the pace of its loan creation at the macro level without crushing the economy, what it needs is to find outlets - legal or otherwise - that permit the outflow of funds.
Which is why it is not at all surprising that as SCMP reports, the scheme was launched in 2011, just as China's scary encounter with soaring inflation was unfolding and Beijing needed a fast way to solve the overabundance of domestic liquidity. Basically at that point the central bank agreed to keep its eyes shut as wealthy oligarchs transferred funds to developed world nations, something the US government and NAR were delighted by as it kept real estate prices (if only at the very top) soaring, dragging the entire housing market higher with them. Furthermore recall: the one thing the Fed has wanted more than anything for the past several years is inflation. And since the US economy is nowhere near strong enough to create the kind of inflation needed, with the bulk of the Fed's reserves ending up in the capital markets and the latest and greatest credit bubble, the Fed would be more than happy to import some of China's inflation from it, even if that means a housing market which at the upper end is no longer accessible to anyone but the 0.0001%.
Indeed, this summary explains everyone's intentions to keep the scheme afloat for as long as possible, at least until CCTV busted it and laid it out for all 1+ billion Chinese, most of whom are not oligarchs and can't take advantage of the PBOC-sanctioned loophole.
So what happens next? Assuming there is the anticipated resulting backlash and crackdown on Chinese banks, which will finally enforce the $50K/year outflow limitation, this could well be the worst possible news not only for Chinese inflation, which suddenly - no longer having a convenient outlet for the unprecedented liquidity formed in the country every month - is set to soar, but also for the ultra-luxury housing in the US.
Because without the Chinese bid in a market in which the Chinese are the biggest marginal buyer scooping up real estate across the land, sight unseen, and paid for in laundered cash (which the NAR blissfully does not need to know about due to its AML exemptions), watch as suddenly the 4th dead cat bounce in US housing since the Lehman failure rediscovers just how painful gravity really is.