If you’re worried about Australia’s housing affordability crisis, look at China
31 Mar 2017
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When considering the issues around housing the focus should be less on raw prices and more on affordability. And in this area, Australians are relatively well off compared to those living in China.
While the medium price of apartments in China’s top cities is at least 15 per cent higher than Sydney and 50 per cent higher than Melbourne, this gap blows out much further when the notion of affordability is factored in.
So as Australians contemplate ever-rising prices forcing the banking regulator on Friday to limit interest-only lending for residential property, the view from China suggests this trend is hardly going to stop. Cities like Sydney and Melbourne look cheap compared to those on the mainland.
According to data from Numbeo, cited by the International Monetary Fund, Greater China can claim five of the world’s 10 most unaffordable cities, with Shenzhen taking out top spot.
The Grand Summit complex in Shanghai where a 3 bedroom apartment on level 31 costs $6.7 million. Angus Grigg
While such data is notoriously difficult to collate given income figures in emerging markets are often unreliable, it does provide the best comparison available.
Land-starved Hong Kong
The Numbeo figures show that in the technology and manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, which sits adjacent to Hong Kong, residents will require a multiple of 38 years of median household earnings to buy an apartment of median value.
Given Shenzhen’s proximity to land-starved Hong Kong and its large pool of semi-skilled manufacturing workers, which bring down the average wage, this number could be considered a little on the high side and not representative of the broader mainland market.
But when moving up the coast to Shanghai the situation is only slightly better. In China’s commercial capital it will take a multiple of nearly 31 years of median earnings to buy a median priced apartment, while in Beijing it will take 33 years. In Hong Kong the number is 34 years, which puts it fourth on Numbeo’s global list.
In the mid 1990s a huge amount of public housing stock was sold off, which 20 years later has created a new class of property millionaires in the country. Qilai Shen
That means these four Chinese cities are only slightly more unaffordable than London, while Sydney and Melbourne are relegated to the lower rungs.
On the Numbeo rankings Sydney comes in at number 90 with 11 years of medium income to buy a property of medium value, while Melbourne is ranked 150th at 7.5 years.
Given the Numbeo data is from mid last year it looks a little on the low side for Australia, but not by a huge margin.
In surveying 10 cities, Demographia found that in Sydney it took 12 years of median income to buy a house of median value, while in Melbourne it was 9.7 years.
All this points to one glaring question: how do people living in a city like Shanghai, where the medium apartment price in $920,000 and the average monthly salary is around $1850, afford to buy a home?
Big reform push
As Andy Rothman from fund manager Matthews Asia likes to say: “China’s housing market is one of the most important parts of the economy and one of the most misunderstood.”
He goes back to the last big reform push in China between 1995 and 2001 when state-backed firms laid off 46 million workers in an effort to modernise and slim down.
Most of these people lived in company-provided housing and were allowed to buy their apartments at a deep discount to the market value, which was already low. This offer was also extended to those who remained in state employment.
“This was the largest one-time transfer of wealth in the history of the world,” says Rothman.
“Most of China’s urban housing stock was handed over to its occupants and it helped to create the liquidity to fuel China’s brand-new commercial housing market.”
The wealth effect from these reforms continues today and explains how many families have been able to borrow against their existing home, which is often debt free, to buy a second or third property.
Hu Shenzhi, a psychologist who runs a clinic in Guangzhou, looks at China’s obsession with property, which has driven prices to record levels, through a cultural and historical lens.
“China’s traumatic history has been passed down through the generations and so people often lack a sense of security,” he says.
“This means they like to own fixed assets like gold and property.”
And as in Australia, Hu notes, owning property in a particular area is also one way of getting your children into a good school and this has helped drive up prices.
“Education resources are not evenly distributed and are often attached to property, which is why many middle-class people are paying ridiculous prices for property,” he says.
“The middle class is the most anxious group in China. They are trying to preserve what they have while pushing their children to the next level.”
This effort to push children up a rung often extends to overseas education and offshore assets and in this area Australia remains a favoured destination.
Lack of options
Yan Yuejin, an analyst at the E-House China Research and Development Institute, says the lack of investment options onshore pushes mainland buyers to own multiple properties and also to look overseas.
“The continuous gains [in the local market] have created a wealth effect. There is also a belief from the public that these gains will continue indefinitely and that property is better than any other investment,” he says.
This compound growth in house prices over two decades means the median apartment price in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen is now at least 15 per cent more expensive in absolute terms than Sydney or Melbourne and nearly twice as expensive in terms of income ratios.
But this does not take into account the quality gap, which also favours Australia. Nor China’s much higher affordability hurdle.
As The Australian Financial Review reported on Tuesday an off-the-plan apartment of just 98 square meters, in a bland suburb half an hour drive from downtown Shanghai, will set you back $1.74 million.
For around the same money in Sydney you can get water views, albeit from a slightly smaller apartment in Lend Leases’ new development at Darling Harbour.
At the same time the rental yields in Sydney and Melbourne are double that of China’s three most expensive cities, according to research by Credit Suisse.
Put all this together and Australia looks cheap, which helps explain what New York fund manager Bill Sterling from Trilogy Global Advisors described as a “torrent of Chinese money” coming into Australia.