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China cities get creative in steadying cooling property markets

Tweaking of policies tilted towards ensuring house prices don't fall: developer

Beijing

PROPERTY agent Yuan Bin thought he must have misheard when news broke on Nov 11 - China's equivalent of Black Friday - that the Shenzhen government was cancelling a capital gains tax on some apartments in the southern boomtown.

Shenzhen, which has seen the heaviest level of speculation in China's property market, led a nationwide crackdown on speculative buying in early 2016 to cool overheated prices.

"I thought to myself: 'This can't be real'," said Mr Yuan, who has been selling property for six years. He made 50 calls that day and three clients agreed to buy that month.

"It's been absolutely crazy," he said. "Our transactions in the week of Nov 11-15 beat the whole month of October."

Despite the campaign against speculation, Chinese cities struggling with slowing sales and rising inventories have been devising creative plans to cushion their markets, testing Beijing's willingness to let them fall back on an old growth engine in weak economic times.

Last December, Chinese property investment hit a two-year low while new home prices grew at the slowest pace in 17 months, adding to signs of a slackening in the sector and suggesting Beijing may need to offer more stimulus to stabilise a cooling economy.

Last week, Hengyang, a city of seven million in southern Hunan province, offered a bold solution to stimulate sales: it allowed home buyers to borrow more from the state-run Housing Provident Fund (HPF), reversing steps in July 2018 to reduce such borrowing.

The fund was established in 1999 to help employees finance their own homes. All workers and employers in China make mandatory contributions monthly. Property buyers can withdraw contributions and also borrow from the fund, which must be paid back with interest.

First-time buyers can use HPF loans for as much as 80 per cent of the purchase price, up from 70 per cent previously, while those looking to buy a second home can utilise such loans for up to 70 per cent compared with 50 per cent, Hengyang authorities said.

Beijing has been calling for more targeted city-based policies to stabilise markets, but the policy tweaking is now tilted towards ensuring that house prices don't fall, said a property developer familiar with local government thinking in eastern Zhejiang province.

"Relaxing curbs is needed for GDP growth, for stabilising market expectations and for stabilising home prices," he said, declining to be named.

The sharp cooling in land auctions in some areas last year put great pressure on local government finances, a land ministry official said.

While most local authorities have been clandestine about their easing efforts to avoid scrutiny, Dazhou, a city of over five million in south-western Sichuan province, was less shy about its plans.

In a document dated Jan 10, its government detailed 12 measures to ensure the "steady and healthy development" of its property market.

They included subsidies for developers for new apartment sales at 100 yuan per square metre, and less stringent upfront investment requirements for developers to start sales.

"This is a very aggressive move," said the land ministry official.

Some analysts say that if economic growth stabilises, the government could potentially dial back its stimulus to lower the risk of debt problems emerging from the property market. REUTERS