Opinion

George Chen

Property under attack in China

George Chen
Jan 27, 2011 07:25 UTC
Property under attack in China While U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to see a quick property market recovery to boost investor confidence, China’s intentions for its own property market are the diametric opposite – not because it wants to damage investor confidence, but rather to cool growing social unrest prompted by fast-rising property prices. On Jan. 26, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hosted a cabinet meeting to discuss the latest property market situation. As a result of the top-level meeting, Wen announced his new “eight-point” guidelines, considered by many analysts as the toughest so far and probably his last major effort to curb property prices: 1. Local governments should set 2011 property price-control targets and make them public 2. Land supply for affordable public housing should be stepped up and the pace of construction increased 3. Properties sold within five years of purchase will be subject to a sales tax based on the selling price 4. The minimum down payment requirement on second homes will rise to 60 percent from 50 percent 5. Land supply for residential property this year should be no less than the average annual figure from the previous two years 6. Home-purchase limits will be adopted nationwide. Local governments should limit home purchases by non-local residents and those who have already purchased more than two homes. 7. Local government should take responsibility for stabilising property prices (in other words, those who fail to do their job could be punished) 8. Increased education to encourage more sensible property investment to create a more stable market for the long term Wen, whose nickname is “Grandpa Wen” for his usually warm public personality, has pledged to rein in property prices before the end of his final term in office in 2012. But time is short and progress has so far been limited, so he has decided to take action once again. Among the eight points, the most important is of course to raise the down payment minimum for second-home buyers. Local media have already reported a sharp rebound in property transactions, one or even two times more than usual since the beginning of the year in some big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. With the anticipation of more policy curbs, Chinese home buyers feel compelled to sign deals more quickly and more aggressively. Early this week, official think-tank the China Academy of Sciences released its 2011 forecasts, including an estimate that property price growth may slow but will still rise about 12 percent on average. Such forecasts should serve as clear cautions to Premier Wen if he wants to keep his promise before he retires. Ironically, property prices have risen more than ever before since Wen took power. Of course, you can’t blame him. All this, I say, is a natural process and the result of strong economic growth and increasing personal wealth. But just like a coin, everything has two sides. Those who get rich (as late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said “let some people get rich first”) are happy to get their homes. Those who miss the chance … oops … perhaps Premier Wen can do more to get them on track. For global fund managers, who are still talking about the beautiful China story: Wake up, please, because 2011 looks like a truly strange and difficult year for China, if not for the whole world. Chinese banks are under pressure, thanks to endless reserve ratio increases. Property is now under attack. Commodities prices continue to rise in global markets and most people say it’s too complicated to understand how commodities and futures products work. So, tell me which is relatively speaking the safest area to put money? Perhaps property if you are a firm believer in yuan appreciation, which could be even faster this year for the sake of Sino-U.S. relations? I do believe President Hu Jintao doesn’t mean to disappoint President Obama after his successful state visit. Apparently, Zhang Xin, CEO and co-founder of leading Chinese developer SOHO China, is still a big fan of the business. There is little reason to expect new measures by the Chinese authorities to rein in property prices will be any more effective this year than in 2010, she said. What happened in 2010? It was considered the toughest policy year for real estate in China. And the result? Property price rose more than 20 percent on average. “So what, you say? Do what I do. The property market is already out of the government’s control. It’s too late,” a fund manager summed up the recent property policies for me when we had lunch recently. Then he ordered another glass of wine despite complaints about his lower bonus this year, given mediocre fund performance in 2010. My fund manager friend is probably what Deng was talking about — those who get rich first. He’s now looking to buy his third home in Shanghai.

Hu, Wen

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

While U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to see a quick property market recovery to boost investor confidence, China’s intentions for its own property market are the diametric opposite – not because it wants to damage investor confidence, but rather to cool growing social unrest prompted by fast-rising property prices.

On Jan. 26, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hosted a cabinet meeting to discuss the latest property market situation. As a result of the top-level meeting, Wen announced his new “eight-point” guidelines, considered by many analysts as the toughest so far and probably his last major effort to curb property prices:

1. Local governments should set 2011 property price-control targets and make them public

2. Land supply for affordable public housing should be stepped up and the pace of construction increased

Winning Hu’s heart

George Chen
Jan 19, 2011 05:34 UTC
From working lunch to “private dinner”, Texas ranch to the White House, and George Bush to Barack Obama, you can clearly see the differences in the approaches of the two U.S. presidents to welcoming Chinese President Hu Jintao. The aim is almost the same, to win the heart and mind of Hu before the United States tries to convince him and his country to increase cooperation with the U.S. on a range of tough issues – for example, North Korea. Influential Chinese newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald reported that First Lady Michelle Obama would “supervise White House chefs” over the food to be served during the state visit. Earlier, Obama said he would treat Hu to a “private dinner”, a very rare arrangement for visiting heads of state to the U.S., affording the two gentlemen private space for a more frank conversation at the White House. The Chinese-language report highlighting Michelle Obama’s supervisory role at the private dinner was an attention-grabber and one of the most-read articles on many leading Chinese news portals so far this week. Many Chinese netizens praised Mrs. Obama’s kind offer to treat China’s “top boss”. It would seem that before Obama has even had a chance to win the heart and mind of Hu, his wife has already scored brownie points among the Chinese public. Things were very different just five years ago.  In 2006, when George Bush was president and invited Hu to visit, he initially suggested that Hu visit his private ranch in Texas. When the news went public, the reaction in China must have surprised Bush. Many traditional, middle-aged Chinese people didn’t really like the idea of Hu being received at Bush’s personal ranch instead of the White House. Some Chinese scholars also publicly criticized the idea, which they believed failed to reflect the seriousness and importance of Sino-U.S. ties. In the end, Hu didn’t go to the ranch, but had to settle for lunch at the White House. No dinner? Chinese people generally prefer dinner to lunch. Lunch is a more specific, purpose-focused meal, for example the business lunches that bankers in Hong Kong so often attend. Lunch is about the talk more than food. It’s not really about winning the heart and mind of the guest, but a more pragmatic approach to make him help you solve certain problems. The Chinese way of dealing with friendships is that you’d better bring your Chinese friend to a formal dinner – the more formal, the better it demonstrates how serious you are about the relationship.  This time, Obama scored the point. A private dinner at the White House, the counterpart of Zhongnanhai, where Chinese leaders live in Beijing, sounds like a sufficiently friendly and serious approach to please Hu and improve the Sino-U.S. ties. For various reasons, Hu’s last visit to the United States was not considered a successful trip by many political analysts and scholars. Remember the story about the Chinese national anthem played at the White House on Bush’s official reception for Hu? Thank God. The anthem was correct – the one for the People’s Republic of China. But it was announced by the U.S. solider responsible for hospitality at the ceremony as the anthem of the Republic of China, in other words Taiwan! Imagine how Hu may must have felt when he heard the words: “Now, the national anthem for the Republic of China”. Many things have taken place in the five years since, and the rise of China is something no one can ignore, although whether the rise is peaceful or an emerging threat to the region or even the world is a subject of debate for many. It seems Obama understands China better than his predecessor, or he has to understand China better given its bigger impact on world affairs. The more prudent rather than self-important, and a more personal rather than state-arrogant approach by Obama towards Hu and China may reflect new attitude toward Sino-U.S. relations for both sides. However, that doesn’t mean the international community should hold up their hopes too high for the outcome of the meeting. A private dinner may help win Hu’s heart, but you can’t expect him to immediately get tough on North Korea after he returns home. The same goes for Sino-U.S. trade, yuan appreciation and so on. Chinese leaders prefer to “proceed step by step” or  循序渐进 as they say in Chinese. So, how should we measure the success of Hu’s trip to the United States? My personal view is that the top priority for Obama and the U.S. government is to win Hu’s heart and mine first. Once you make him happy, improve mutual trust and create some sort of chemistry, then you just need a spark to start addressing the other issues.

HuBy George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

From working lunch to “private dinner”, Texas ranch to the White House, and George Bush to Barack Obama, you can clearly see the differences in the approaches of the two U.S. presidents to welcoming Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The aim is almost the same, to win the heart and mind of Hu before the United States tries to convince him and his country to increase cooperation with the U.S. on a range of tough issues – for example, North Korea.

Beijing debates the yuan

George Chen
Dec 30, 2010 06:06 UTC
There’s apparently growing debate in Beijing over the possibility of interest rate reform next year. The latest opinion was voiced by a senior central bank official, who said the government should lift the ceiling on bank deposit rates to help rein in accelerating inflation in the world’s second-biggest economy. Will this happen in 2011? It seems much more likely than the possibility of a fully convertible yuan anytime soon. “China should allow deposit rates to float upwards. It would gradually enable the market to price in expectations of interest rate rises,” Sheng Songcheng, head of statistics at the People’s Bank of China, said in an article published on the central bank website late on Dec. 29. “That would help change negative real deposit rates and curb inflation,” he added. If Sheng had published the article as a commentary in a local newspaper, it would more likely have been considered his personal opinion, but posted on the central bank’s website, the top headline on the front page no less, it’s certainly something to be taken very seriously. In my view, Sheng’s article was published not only for the market to analyze but also as a pitch to the top leaders in Beijing for more serious consideration. Beijing controls China’s interest rate market by setting a ceiling on deposit rates and a floor on lending rates. This protects banks from competition and ensures they have a decent interest rate margin, which is around 3 percentage points now — that’s partly why banking jobs in China are very popular and considered one of the most stable jobs, in particular with big state-owned lenders. Many people say working for a bank in China means you have an “iron rice bowl”. The interest rate margin provides a safe and stable channel of profit for banks. Whatever they do, they have the “3 percentage points” to make money. However, given that the rate is fixed by the central bank, it may also explain why local people often complain about the service they receive at big banks in China. How bad? You should consider it normal if you are stuck in a long queue for about 30 minutes or even an hour before you reach the teller. The central bank usually raises both loan and deposit rates, like the newest rate increase on Christmas Day, which leaves the profit margin of banks unchanged. If interest rate reform really takes place next year, we should see a lot of interesting stories about the banking industry. At least, I do hope more competition can bring Chinese financial consumers better service. In fact, any move towards a more market-oriented interest rate reform is not just about the banking industry. Such moves will also affect the foreign exchange rate of the yuan, which may well explain why some officials at the State Administration of Foreign Exchange don’t really like the idea of a free interest rate market. They say it may encourage more speculative money inflows to bet on faster yuan appreciation, making the foreign exchange regulator’s job more difficult or less important to some extent. Why less important? You might think they would be busier fighting a faster rising yuan. Yes and no — if you have some decent central bank sources in Beijing, you may come to know that there’s always a strange tension between the PBOC and the SAFE, similar to the tension between interest rates and the foreign exchange rate. I remember a SAFE official once privately told me that the day the yuan becomes fully convertible may be the same day the offices of the SAFE are closed. This may sound extreme but think — the SAFE’s job is to control the yuan, the more convertible the yuan becomes, the less controls you need. Then that will also affect many people’s jobs, promotions and even their political careers. Does this explain the unique relationship between the SAFE and the PBOC? Currently, the SAFE is one rank lower than the PBOC as foreign exchange regulation is considered a function of the central bank in China. The current head of the SAFE is Yi Gang. He is also a deputy governor of the PBOC and reports to central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan. However, some SAFE officials believe SAFE should play a more important and independent role in making foreign exchange policy and related matters, given the significance of the yuan, which often has a major impact on China’s diplomatic relations such as the ties with the United States. To some extent, some market observers say the unique tension and internal bureaucracy between the SAFE and the PBOC actually serve to slow currency reforms and the internationalisation of yuan. So, who’s going to have the final say? The State Council, China’s cabinet led by Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao of course. Hu is going to meet U.S. President Barack Obama next month and the two gentlemen will for sure touch upon the yuan issue. From all the signs I can see here, China is ready to let the yuan rise faster next year, so our American friends should be happier. In return, at least Hu deserves a better reception during his visit. Remember Hu’s last visit to the United States? It was not considered a very successful or happy trip by some political observers. Meanwhile, the yuan debate will continue at home, but this time The central banks seems determined to push forward interest rate reforms first to make Chinese people feel happy. Then Hu and Wen should be happy too. Some people say central bankers are the real politicians in China, and I sense their counterparts at the Federal Reserve are going to perform a similar role. Do you agree?

ZhouBy George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

There’s apparently growing debate in Beijing over the possibility of interest rate reform next year. The latest opinion was voiced by a senior central bank official, who said the government should lift the ceiling on bank deposit rates to help rein in accelerating inflation in the world’s second-biggest economy. Will this happen in 2011? It seems much more likely than the possibility of a fully convertible yuan anytime soon.

“China should allow deposit rates to float upwards. It would gradually enable the market to price in expectations of interest rate rises,” Sheng Songcheng, head of statistics at the People’s Bank of China, said in an article published on the central bank website late on Dec. 29. “That would help change negative real deposit rates and curb inflation,” he added.

Inflation, the new civil war in China

George Chen
Dec 28, 2010 06:17 UTC
Mao Zedong led his Communist comrades to defeat the Chinese Nationalists in a civil war, founding a “new” China in 1949. Today, the Hu Jintao administration is fighting a new civil war and the enemy is inflation. Beijing announced the latest interest rate rise — the second of 2010 – on Christmas Day, effective on Dec. 26, also the birthday of Chairman Mao. I suspect, central bankers in Beijing didn’t really want to celebrate the holiday, they just wanted to give the market a surprise Christmas gift. I asked some friends in the financial industry if the rate increase was a surprise. The responses were very mixed. The 0.25 basis point increase for the benchmark deposit and lending rates was a sort of uniform move. If the central bank had gone for a 50 basis point rise, that would have been a very big surprise. The timing of the increase was a surprise, especially after Beijing raised bank required reserve ratios about a week earlier. We thought Chinese officials also needed a break after a very busy month but they have proved themselves to be unpredictable one again, not to mention tireless. Just one day after Beijing raised the interest rate, Hu Xiaolian, deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, published an article on the PBOC’s website, saying the central bank would make good use of a combination of monetary policy tools next year, including interest rates, bank reserve ratios and open market operations, to make interest rates more market-oriented. How often will these tools be implemented? She didn’t say in the article, but now many analysts are predicting the next rate increase could take place in two or three months – within the first quarter. Clearly, China has entered a new cycle of rate increases. Many economists believe the newest rate rise shows Beijing’s determination to curb inflation, giving that task greater priority than maintaining economic growth. Some analysts also said the cabinet and some ministries were finally on the same page for tackling inflation after earlier disputes over how to balance the interplay between GDP and CPI. To be honest with you, I am not a big fan of interest rates. If you really rely on interest rates to improve living standards, it’s almost like living in a daydream. Hong Kong broadcaster TVB interviewed some residents of nearby Guangzhou city after the announcement of rate rise. Most of them the move and even the prospect of more increases in 2011 would not do much to help them feel better about inflation, which is rising much faster than the pace of rate rises. Can Beijing raise interest rates once a month? I don’t think so. Will inflation continue to rise above 5 percent in coming months? That’s my guess. The core cause of China’s high inflation is food but people are also very interested to see how much property prices can fall. Premier Wen Jiabao does realise that curbing property prices is much harder than controlling food prices. In a rare state radio interview yesterday, Wen acknowledged that the measures Beijing took this year to cool the property market were “not very well implemented” and changed his tone on getting housing prices to return to “a reasonable level”. Previously, he was usually more straightforward in his statements about wanting to see prices under control during his final term, which ends in 2012. Besides inflation, it will also be interesting to see how Beijing deals with yuan appreciation. With higher deposit rates for yuan, a hopefully more bullish stock market in 2011 and prices of houses and villas rising across the vast nation regardless of policy curbs in 2010, do the factors sound perfect for seeing the yuan increase in value too? In fact, as many economists have already pointed out, a stronger yuan can also allow China to import commodities and other items more cheaply, helping  the government get to grips with inflation. My grandmother, more than 80 years of age, once told me there were still many old people in China who miss the days when Chairman Mao was the leader and the distribution and balance of wealth were considered by some to be better shape than they are nowadays. Deng Xiaoping wanted to “let some people get rich first”, and today we see more and more people complain of feeling increasingly poor. It was not easy for Chairman Mao to win the civil war for control of mainland China, and the new civil war on the economic front is going to be a real test of the intelligence and strength of the younger generation of Chinese Communists.

Mao

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Mao Zedong led his Communist comrades to defeat the Chinese Nationalists in a civil war, founding a “new” China in 1949. Today, the Hu Jintao administration is fighting a new civil war and the enemy is inflation.

Beijing announced the latest interest rate rise — the second of 2010 — on Christmas Day, effective on Dec. 26, also the birthday of Chairman Mao. I suspect, central bankers in Beijing didn’t really want to celebrate the Western holiday, they just wanted to give the market a surprise Christmas gift.

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