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China is Slowing. What If Its Housing Bubble Bursts?

Sep 18, 2014

While global investors covet China's growth — as evidenced by the buzz surrounding Alibaba's IPO — the Chinese economy is actually slowing down.

In 2013, the world’s second largest economy grew at an annual rate of 7.7%. By 2015, according to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, that will drop to 7.3%. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy's growth rate is projected to increase by almost one percentage point.

What’s going on? Well, China’s industrial production gains in August slowed to their lowest level since 2008 and retail sales growth declined by a few percentage points year-over-year.

Perhaps most important, the nation’s newly built home prices only grew by 2.5% in July, after surging by 10% at the beginning of the year.

The notion of a housing crisis in an economy more than three times the size of France brings back flashbacks of 2008 and probably a few chills down every investor’s spine.

“A property price crash in the world’s second largest economy would have global implications,” says Wells Fargo Securities economist Jay Bryson.

But those global implications wouldn’t be as worrisome as the U.S. housing collapse six years ago, per Bryson. Here’s why.

The Worst Case

To play out this thought experiment you have to assume that at some point in the near future China’s home prices will experience a decline on the order of what the U.S. experienced over the past decade. (Bryson played out this scenario in a recent report.)

Currently, residential investment makes up a pretty decent portion of the Chinese economy – about 10% of nominal GDP. To put that in context, that ratio was closer to 6% for the U.S. in 2006.

So housing is a big deal in China. If they experienced a value decline like we did, Bryson estimates that would lop off about one percentage point of growth. But the pain wouldn’t stop there.

A collapse in housing prices would result in fewer construction jobs – estimated at around 60 million people in urban China. Jobless workers would spend less, which means that those goods and services the now-unemployed construction workers would normally purchase would not get bought.

If out-of-work construction workers reduce their spending on food and entertainment, the businesses that produce that food and entertainment will make less money and then some of their workers may face unemployment too. Since my spending is your income, lower spending means people have less money in their paychecks, and the nation’s GDP suffers.

Moreover, if housing goes in the tank, banks will see losses, which means they’ll tighten credit, resulting in fewer loans for people to start businesses.

Let’s not forget the actual homeowners. If home prices fall, homeowners’ equity declines as well. (See: Sell, Short). And when people’s chief asset is suddenly worth a lot less, they’re not going to spend as much on other, discretionary items. “Although the lack of data makes it impossible to quantify the wealth effect in China, researchers have found that there is a statistically significant direct relationship in the United States between changes in wealth and changes in consumer spending,” per Bryson’s report.

Lower demand from China means that countries which sell goods to China (think Chile and Australia) will sell less stuff. As corporate profits are squeezed, a global bear market may result.

“Although China may not be as important to global economic growth as the United States, the global economy clearly would not be immune to a major property market downturn in China,” says Bryson.

The Not-So-Bad Case

Freaked out? Breathe deep and take solace in the fact that despite this potentially harrowing dénouement, the world probably wouldn't endure another global financial crisis. And that’s thanks to responsible Chinese borrowers.

Chinese households usually have to put a lot more money down – 30% on their first home, up to 60% for an individual’s second – than Americans. So if prices were to decline substantially, Chinese homeowners would be in a much better position than Americans back in 2007 to deal with the crisis. For example, household debt-to-disposable income has grown substantially in China since 2007, but it’s still about one-third the size of U.S. households back in 2007.

The world will also feel less of a pinch. When mortgages started going bad in the U.S., foreign financial institutions lost close to $750 billion of the more than $2 trillion in write-downs resulting from the crash. That was because foreign banks owned a lot of U.S. mortgage-backed securities. Not so here. “Chinese mortgages are generally held by Chinese financial institutions in the form of whole mortgages.” So if prices were to drop, Chinese banks would suffer while U.S. one’s most likely wouldn’t.

Lastly, the Chinese government wouldn’t sit on its hands while its economy came crashing down. Beijing's debt-to-GDP ratio is around 15%, so it has a lot of room to recapitalize its banks if needed.

So what’s an investor to do?

“I don’t lose sleep at night worrying about China, nor should other people,” says Bryson. “But they may want to keep an eye on it.”

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