China real estate sector likely at crossroads

Updated: 2008-04-13 08:52

BOAO, Hainan -- Economists and executives participating here in the Boao Forum for Asia on Saturday highlighted the uncertainties of China's real estate industry, which they said might experience a rational cooling at best or a painful reshuffle this year.

Many agreed 2008 would not be a quiet year for China's property industry, even though the US subprime crisis would hardly deal serious blows to the domestic real estate market.

Government data had projected a slowdown in the rise of property prices since January, with price declines registered in some cities.

In Shenzhen of the southern Guangdong Province, the cradle of the country's real estate industry, developers who used to buy up land over the past few years had suddenly turned prudent this spring. This was evidenced by the increasing plots of land failing to be auctioned off.

Pan Shiyi, chairman of property developer SOHO China, attributed the caution to a strained cash flow in the Real Estate Dialogue talk on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia 2008 Annual Conference.

Rising interest rates and succinct bank loans under the tight monetary policy imposed late last year, together with the rising costs for raw materials, labor and land, had squeezed the profits of the real estate industry, he said.

China's four largest listed land developers, including Vanke, China Merchants Property Development, Gemdale and Poly, all reported a five-year low in cash flow from operating costs per share in their 2007 financial reports.

"Money has become the top problem plaguing the capital-intensive real estate industry this year," Pan said.

But Ren Zhiqiang, president of the Beijing-based Huayuan Group, told the meeting he would rather take a long-term perspective. "So long as the fundamentals of the Chinese economy remain un-disrupted, property prices will rise soon or later," he said.

Chen Huai, dean of the policy research office of the ministry of housing and urban-rural construction, also denied the country's real estate sector was in the trough.

"The process of urbanization in China is a long-term strategy that will last 20 to 30 years. It will not easily be affected by individual events such as the US subprime crisis and the Olympic Games."

The adjustment would be more like a rational cooling from the past sizzling growth, he noted.

Chen said the newly-installed ministry of housing and urban-rural construction would strive to secure the need for low-rent houses in counties and cities, build more houses in villages and townships and further regulate the property market.

Though confident with the whole industry, Ren still foresaw a difficult period as cash-strained small players would face mergers and acquisitions in the months to come.

Hu Zuliu, Goldman Sachs Group (Asia) Ltd general manager, warned it was dangerous to think China was immune to the subprime crisis triggered by a property bust in the United states.

He said there were many lessons to be drawn from both the crisis and history as many countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France, Thailand and Malaysia, had experienced a boom-and-bust real estate cycle over the past decade. "China should stay on high alert at this point."

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