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Saturday, 14 July 2012

'No’ to property price speculation

Excessive Asian property price appreciation may be over for now

PEOPLE generally like to invest in properties. It is easy to understand you buy a house. It is a simple, tangible investment. It is long term and financing is usually easy. Most people tend to have positive experience after buying their first home, which normally would appreciate after a decade or two.

Simple things can morph into complex series of events. Buying houses may turn to speculation, massive speculations become a boom and bust “housing bubble”; banks may collapse from huge bad mortgages, a financial crisis and then a government bailout ensues, an economic recession soon follows. These events sound a little too familiar.

Low interest rates, massive liquidity and investors shying away from volatile stock markets, are some of the many reasons cited for Asia's potential property bubbles today. From 2009 or so, private residential properties have seen large average price jumps in China (Beijing +100%), Hong Kong (+53%), Singapore (+53%), Malaysia (+21%) and Indonesia (Jakarta +14%).

Asian policy makers have taken many pre-emptive actions to control this property “bubble”, usually by regulating excessive speculation and guiding mortgage lending by banks. In Hong Kong, policy makers try to discourage speculators by raising special stamp duty for short term resale of residential property (5% to 15%, depending on holding period); in Singapore, measures include a hefty extra 10% stamp duty on purchase price for non-residents. In Indonesia, there's a maximum 70% property loan limit.

Recent data suggest such curbs did not slow the Hong Kong or Singapore property markets for long. Transactions or prices picked up again recently. We believe however, if Asian property prices rise rapidly again, tougher curbs may be in the cards. The slew of increasingly tough measures in China the last 18 months is seen as an example. An avalanche of curbs eventually made China home prices dip for eight straight months up to May 2012.

Historically, financial crisis in many countries (Japan 1991, US 2008 and Spain today) are caused by property price bubbles bursting hurting consumers, banks and businesses. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to have responsible lending.

Asian policy makers, having learned bitter lessons from the 1997/98 financial crisis, sees pre-emptive measures to control any potential property “bubble” as crucial to avoid banking problems or crises.

Governments in Asia on the one hand want to curb excessive price speculation, while at the same time, know that home ownership is a very important (and personal) issue notwithstanding it is also a big contributor to domestic economic growth.

What Asian policy makers aim to do is best captured in a Chinese phrase, which literally means “in peace time, think about danger”. The best time to prepare for rainy days is when the sun is shining it's a lot harder to do so in a storm.

The biggest challenge for policy makers is to develop a sustainable property sector and promote home ownership (especially first time house buyers) without boom and bust. That includes the balancing act of curbing property speculation without inadvertently pulling the brakes on the economy.

Some Malaysian non-listed property developers I met recently have expressed deep concerns that sales of their high-end, new condominiums are lagging, because buyers find it difficult to get financing.

Bank Negara's curbs on lending for third property mortgage (maximum 70% financing) and stricter banks credit standards appears to be working for now.

The intent of Bank Negara, we believe, is to nip excessive property price speculation in the bud. Current property curbs ensure at least prices don't run up too fast and banks may allocate more funds to first time house buyers rather than investors or speculators.

Interestingly, property developers who don't complain about curbs are often the established ones who prefer sustainable growth, rather than a boom and bust property market. I believe many property companies have learnt not to borrow too much.

Tellingly, the top five Malaysian listed property developers have reduced average net gearing from 70% in 2000 to 18% in 2011, (Indonesian and Thai property developers reduced from 612% to 9% and 255% to 84% respectively). Asean property companies today are undoubtedly less leveraged with healthier cash reserves.

That's one reason why most property developers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand for example, are not rushing to unload properties at massive discounts, even as property curbs bite into sales. They know current measures are temporary and consumer demand is likely robust for quite some time.

Asian consumers are financially better off today. Healthy employment and wage increases across Asia means consumer demand for housing will likely stay buoyant and house prices, like in normal times, will gradually rise over time.

However, the intriguing impact on Asian properties today given the mind set and propensity of policy makers to pre-empt any potential property bubble I believe periods of excessive property price appreciation in many Asian property markets may already be over for now.

I believe policy maker's curbs on excessive price speculation is a right policy. Even if there's short-term pain, it will likely make Asian economic growth sustainable for the longer term in these difficult times.

Singular Vision

Teoh Kok Lin is the founder and chief investment officer of Singular Asset Management Sdn Bhd.

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