There’s a tendency among economic and financial analysts to treat all housing crises as essentially the same. Housing is a long-lived asset purchased with leverage, therefore it’s not surprising to see a common pattern of a buildup of leverage leading to higher prices leading to excess construction, which at some gets out of hand and then is followed by collapsing prices, construction and leverage. Yet the details of housing markets do matter, and vary quite a lot between countries. As with Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, every housing crisis is a bit different and exposes a different set of institutional flaws.
The housing crisis that China is now experiencing centers on its peculiar institutions for selling housing before it is built. Housing sales are plunging, not precisely because households can’t get mortgages or fear falling prices, but because they no longer trust that developers will actually complete and deliver housing bought in advance. There is good reason for that, as some of the nation’s largest developers have become so financially stressed that they have stopped construction on projects, including those that have already been paid for. Households that own units in the affected projects have tried to draw attention to their plight with online protests and threats to stop paying their mortgages.
It is a bit complicated to explain how this extraordinary sequence of events happened, but I have not yet seen a better explanation of the issues in English than in this piece from Caixin, which is worth quoting at length:
Although developers in many countries are allowed to sell homes before they finish building them, the practice in China is special in two ways.
First, homebuyers have to pay in full when they decide to buy. Usually, they produce a downpayment for a mortgage and the bank covers the rest. But in other countries like the UK, buyers of presale homes only need to come up with a deposit to reserve a property. They don’t need to pay off a mortgage until their homes are delivered. This full-payment requirement has helped developers raise cash quickly.
Second, until recently, Chinese developers had been allowed to use the bulk of their presale revenue for whatever they wanted. Although China has laws and regulations requiring developers to set aside enough money to finish construction on their housing projects, local governments and banks had allowed them to sidestep some of the rules, including the requirement that presale funds must be deposited into government-supervised escrow accounts. Instead, a vast amount of presale funds ended up in developers’ own accounts.
It didn’t really matter that developers hadn’t socked away as much money in escrow as they were supposed to. They were still able to finish their projects because they could always get their hands on more money, either through loans from banks and trust companies and issuing bonds, or by starting new projects. New homes were usually easy to sell. But when this changed, and it became harder to get financing and sell new homes, the business model fell apart.
The two issues here are that 1) China’s system for financing the construction of new housing put an unusual amount of risk onto households, 2) the legal safeguards in place to protect households from those risks were in practice routinely ignored. A recent post by Ren Zeping, a celebrity economist who used to work for China Evergrande, the giant developer whose troubles precipitated the current crisis, explains more of the background to both issues. Why does China have such a peculiar system?
The simple story is that the advance sale of commercial housing originated from Hong Kong, as a way for developers to put on leverage. In the mainland, the 1998 housing reform borrowed from Hong Kong’s experience and introduced the presales system due to the shortage of commercial housing and the shortage of funds at developers. In fact, a presales system currently exists in many countries around the world.
But here is the important point! Developed countries generally have very strict regulatory safeguards. Developers can start selling only after the project has been approved by the government, and buyers do not, as in China, pay the full amount of the purchase price at once with a bank loan after paying a deposit, but pay in installments according to the developer’s construction progress before delivery is completed. Therefore, the presales system requires strict supervision of funds with installment payments and penalties for default as safeguards.
The first cause of the current loss of faith in China’s housing institutions is thus that those institutions were poorly designed at the outset. In the early stages of the creation of a commercial housing market, when the priority was financing new construction to replace the dilapidated Maoist-era housing stock, it probably made sense to prioritize the interests of developers over those of urban households. That initial decision, however, created a path dependency, so that developers were permitted to keep transferring risk to households long after there was a reasonable justification for it.
The second cause, as the Caixin article clearly demonstrates, is the failure to enforce the rules that actually existed. When homebuyers paid in full for a housing unit that they would not take possession of for years, their interests were supposed to be protected by requirements to use those funds to actually complete the project. It was an open secret in the industry that these requirements were not enforced. Caixin quotes an executive at a property developer saying they could actually do whatever they wanted with 90% of the presales revenue they received.
Ren Zeping describes a couple of ways in which developers could get access to the funds. The property developer and the contractor could collude, with the contractor requesting more money for construction than was actually needed, and then sending the excess to the developer (which could then use it to start more projects). Or the developer could convince the local government and the bank that are supervising the funds to approve the release of money from the account, for instance by exaggerating the actual progress on construction.
There are undoubtedly many other such dodges and schemes. But the general point is that the institutions that were supposed to be protecting the interests of Chinese households in the housing market did not, and instead were corrupted by developers. It’s no wonder people are protesting. The authorities who were tasked ensuring developers met their obligations to households failed to do so until it was far too late (local governments have reportedly tightened supervision of presales funds over the past year). The current housing crisis is thus not simply a failure of technical regulation, but also a failure of ethics and the rule of law. Proposals for institutional fixes will have to reckon with this demonstrated difficulty in ensuring even-handed enforcement of rules around real estate, an area where corporate and local government interests are so strong.