Who can forget China's ghost city of Ordos: back in late 2009, when the hollow shell behind China's torrid growth was first revealed to the world, the city near China's Mongolia border was cooler talk for weeks. Fast forward five years later, and Ordos is all but forgotten, having been eclipsed by a veritable army of much bigger "ghosts" that make up the "ghost town network" - a list of cities created by the China Investment Network, a business newspaper in Beijing, to determine which cities were the most ghostly.
As Caixin reports, the newspaper devised its index using a government standard that says cities should have 10,000 people per square kilometer. The editors at China Investment Network determined that if a city's ratio of people to area was 0.5 – that is, it was half full – then it is a ghost town. To take the example a step further, if a city had a ratio of .10, then it had one-tenth the population the government thought it deserved. Based on this approach, at least 50 Chinese cities fit the description of "ghost town." The large city of Weihai, in the eastern province of Shandong, and the tourist destination of Sanya, in the south's Hainan Province, were among China's emptiest.
And here is how a Goldman analyst recount his "on the ground" visit around some of the more prominent Chinese ghost cities. From Goldman's Kenneth Ho:
In August, the GS Asia Credit Strategy team spent four days in China, visiting a number of property development projects as well as a couple of well-publicized “ghost towns.” While this brief trip to a limited number of developments is unlikely to provide a full picture of the real estate market in China, it does offer a first-hand look at some of the most widely cited concerns about China’s housing build-up. Kenneth Ho offers his takeaways (and pictures) below.
Less ghostly than expected, but still spooky
The couple of “ghost towns” we visited, while less desolate than some press reports would suggest, were indeed very quiet. We did not prearrange the visits, and we went to the sales offices as well as seeing the properties. Both towns we saw have been in development for about a decade. Tianducheng, or Sky City, on the outskirts of Hangzhou has been reported by the press as deserted (e.g., by Reuters). Although the development was relatively quiet, there were a fair number of occupants in the residential buildings, and we got the sense that tenants were slowly moving in. The staff at the sales office told us that the occupancy rate is around 60% for the completed and sold units. There is further development in Tianducheng, and we did see more construction work taking place – but it was not the desolate town portrayed by the press.
A second well-publicized “ghost town” (e.g., by the South China Morning Post) we visited was Jingjin New Town, on the outskirts of Tianjin. This development is mostly comprised of villas and separated into ten phases. According to the staff at the sales office, phases 1 to 4 have been mostly sold, and phase 5 may be released later this year, though there were no plans at that moment to release phases 6 to 10. We believe that half of the development (phases 1 to 5) have already been built, with the other half (phases 6 to 10) yet to be constructed. Despite most of the completed villas having been sold, from what we saw, the occupancy level is very low, and some unsold villas are not in the best shape. The sales office told us that the project targeted retirees or second/holiday homebuyers working in Beijing and Tianjin (hence the low occupancy), and that it is busier during public holidays and weekends. We cannot verify this statement, and it is difficult to assess which factors are driving the low occupancy rate. Projects of this type have not been attracting much demand, and the town was very quiet overall. That said, we did not see a significant amount of uncompleted constructions. As in Sky City, however, it appeared that more development was coming through.
Construction still dominates the landscape
We visited other projects in Tianjin, Hangzhou, and Hohhot, as they are tier 2 and 3 cities with meaningful excess supply. In Tianjin and Hangzhou, we saw developments on the outskirts as well as some closer to the city center. Although it appeared that YTD sales had been satisfactory, we saw significant amount of construction activity; most projects were targeting improved sales in 2H14, with new launches to come. In Hohhot, a provincial capital reported as having some of the most significant overbuild, centrally located developments targeting the mass market appeared to be seeing demand, though less so for the higher-end projects. But we did see signs of overbuilding, which raises questions about whether newer properties, particularly on the outskirts, will find sufficient demand.