Shenzhen’s 40th anniversary as a special economic zone was celebrated with great fanfare. President Xi Jinping descended from Beijing togive a 50 minute speech and offered all kinds of political rewards to tech and venture capital firms.
Visibly missing a nod to the city’s real estate moguls. On the government list of 40 MVPs, or the most beloved people contributing to the rise of Shenzhen, were the usual suspects such as Pony Ma of Tencent Holdings Ltd.
That’s pretty camouflaged, given that real estate investing is big business in the tech hub, surpassing 300 billion yuan ($ 44.6 billion) last year. Vanke, the city’s biggest developer, is so closely tied to Shenzhen that he went public there in 1991, one of the first on the nascent stock exchange. Vanke waswatch out for the accumulation of debt, in a way a counterpoint to a dependence on industry that irritates Beijing.
The central government increasingly feels that soaring house prices are hurting China’s economic growth. Reading the tea leaves from the MVP list, as well as the seating chart during Xi’s speech on Wednesday, it can be said that the president is not in love with property tycoons.
This concern is most felt in Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley strategically located on the border with Hong Kong. From a fishing village of 60,000 inhabitants in 1980 to 13 million today, it is a crucial part of the Grande Baie region which has overtaken the financial center of gross domestic product. The real estate market has long been unstoppable and hasn’t missed a beat with Covid-19. As soon as China lifted its lockdown, anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit went looking for an apartment. Price of existing housesrose 9.7% in March from the same period in 2019, the fastest pace in three years, even as venture capital funding dried up and tech workers lost their jobs. Subsidized small business loans have not been used properly.
Rent an apartment in become unaffordable. Young professionals earning a base salary, their wealth tied to stock options that may never materialize, are commonplace in “urban villages“Warrens crowded with apartment buildings. There are growing fears that in the future new university graduates will not want to join tech start-ups, and not for lack of ambition. Maybe they just won’t want to live in ghettos.
In recent weeks, real estate developers have been in the limelight, especially after reports that China Evergrande Group, the country’s second largest in terms of sales, hadwarned in a letter of an impending credit crunch. Evergrande said the letter to the Guangdong provincial government was fabricated, but market nervousness persists. Investors sifted through the pile of developers’ debt, ranking their status with Beijing based on the new “three red lines.”
Corporate deleveraging is only part of the story. Soaring house prices across China are hurting household spending plans as they need to save more to buy a home. Beijing sees this playing out in macroeconomic statistics: Retail sales did not return to pre-virus levels until August, months after lockdowns were lifted. The Chinese did not want to go out to eat or shop, but crowded real estate showrooms set up by developers.
Xi has a mantra that the apartments must be inhabited, without speculation. Yet during the October Golden Week holidays, Evergrande offered hisdeepest rebate in history to boost apartment sales. No surprise, speculative buyers took the plunge.
In China, real estate transactions are still a secondary activity. Investors should therefore carefully monitor things like the seating chart at the Shenzhen celebrations to determine who is for and who is excluded. Placed diagonally behind Evergrande, President Hui Ka Yan was a Buddhist monk, the abbe of the Hongfa temple in Shenzhen, netizens pointed out. Maybe poverty, chastity, and obedience are virtues that Hui, one of China’s richest men, could learn?
Xi is now waging an all-out economic war with the United States. He can’t afford the best and the brightest in China to spend their energy – and their money – on changing apartments.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Patrick McDowell at [email protected]
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