Look Back at 2011: Real Estate Bubbles in China

‘Tis that time of the year once again: Those 168 hours of tradition-induced reflection and introspection that occur every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Yet, while I have been up to my own fair share of resolution ruminating, it is the end-of-the-year roundup of past events that news podcasts and websites get caught up in that I am most concerned about here.

For news organizations, it is a time to recall popular headlines from the year, and analyze the success of past predictions to measure just how close they came to the mark. (Not to mention fill up dead time. Roundups are always great busy work — of which I may currently be guilty of.)

Last February, I visited Chongqing to see my old college buddy Jason Thalacker (who is currently a volunteer for the Peace Corps.) and by happenstance came across Tiandi, a very overbuilt and very empty restaurant and bar district; and its neighbors, a towering concrete forest of yet-built luxury condos. I subsequently wrote up an article noting it as a speculator’s deal-gone-wrong.

As of a few weeks ago, most of the district appears unchanged. Chongqing’s desposible income apparently hasn’t stacked up yet.

Tiandi was an obvious bubble. Most of the space had already been sitting unoccupied for a year. But what was most curious about this situation — and perhaps Tiandi’s lifeline out of the black hole of looming bankruptcy — is that it was a pet project of the very buoyant Hong Kong-based Shui On Group, the same group responsible for developing Shanghai’s posh entertainment district of a similar name: Xintiandi. I had recently observed other bids to bulk up China’s entertainment landscape, namely in Shanghai, but the appearance of a big player changed how I had envisioned speculators in China: rag-tag gamblers relegated to playing the property market because of a dearth of other (easily) available outlets.

The same story seems to have recently hit Hainan, China’s once best-performing real estate market. Growth was great there last year. However, measures needed to be taken to cool down speculation, so policies where enacted to increase minimum deposits for purchase; in turn, “Sanya’s home prices have dropped 28 percent since last December,” reports Bloomberg.

Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management (and CCTV personality I used to always catch at off-hours during my China days), has been predicting the existence of a property bubble for some time now. In an article for Foreign Affairs last week, he even claimed that it “may have just popped.”

“In a telling scene two months ago,” the article begins, “Shanghai property developers started slashing prices on their latest luxury condos by up to one-third.”

Hey! Did you just hear that?!

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