The Visible Fist

The Visible Fist of government that is. The Visible Fist is about to crush the property market in China, exploding one of the most egregious bubbles on the face of the planet. The specific blow will take the form of imposing a property tax nationwide - in guidelines recently approved by the State Council. It was reported earlier this week in China Daily.

Although the measures have been considered for some time, the recent push has been given urgency by the dangerous levels that China's property bubble has reached. One of the key contributing factors has been the number of speculators buying property and then holding it off the market to profit from the price run up. Morgan Stanley's Andy Xie estimates that such properties number in the 10-20 million unit range.

Some of his other comments portray a China going through the same stages of economic madness that the US has over the last 20 years. But China is passing through each stage much faster as the (well-deserved) lack of trust in their financial system causes people to only chase really big potential profits. Look at this paragraph and tell me you don't see the parallels:

China's policies have travelled the path of least immediate resistance - monetary expansion and asset inflation. The main purpose behind asset inflation is that the government can tax it. It provides a place for people to chase their get-rich-quick dreams and is popular as long as the market goes up. It also offers insiders who have disproportionate influence to play the game at the expense of little people. It is no coincidence that China's policies have been so pro-asset-inflation in the past few years.
His comments seem to suggest that the lack of a property tax was a deliberate strategy to encourage land speculation and bid up prices in a frenzy. This would make sense as the state was by far the biggest landowner and wanted to extract the maximum price for it. With a large amount of land now in private hands, it can be taxed as the taxable base can now replace diminished land sales as a source of government revenue.

Increasing the carrying cost of speculative assets is one of the surest ways to burst a bubble. That is why rising interest rates nearly always do the trick. Rising ownership taxes have the same impact. China is doing both. The government is both instituting a property tax and requiring higher interest rates on properties other than a primary residence. The impact has been dramatic and nearly immediate and so far, it's just the new financial rules and property restrictions. The tax will aggravate the impact. Here is a report from two weeks ago in China Daily:

The Shanghai market has already felt the chill of the tightening housing policies with new apartment sales falling in April. Over 13,185 units of newly built apartments were traded in April, down 43.7 percent from the same period in 2009, according to data from China Real Estate Index System Shanghai.

Trading in the secondary market in Shanghai also saw a dramatic slump since April 16.

A total of 13,865 housing units changed hands between April 1 to 16, but only 7,974 units were traded from April 17 to 30, said Ma Ji, consulting manager at property consultancy Shanghai Centaline China.

Local media also reported that a property tax might be imposed in the next few months. Houses that fall into the definition for charging property tax will be levied an annual fee of as much as 8 percent of the apartment's total value, the Shanghai Securities News reported on Wednesday.


While I applaud the Chinese government's belated return to sanity, they are now being forced to take action to rein in the monster they created. Recall that we criticized the massive push to force credit through the system last year in Command and Control and The Price of Ponzi. The Sinophiles bragged about how smart the Chinese government was and how the money was going into useful projects. They completely forgot (or never learned) that money is fungible and much of it was bound to end up wasted in financial speculation in stocks and real estate.


Implications
China is trapped in a massive inflationary spiral of its own making. Wages are rising rapidly - undermining their major competitive advantage. But the average worker is still falling behind in terms of housing and other necessities. Just as in the US during the 1970s, inflation's initial effect is seen a purely positive - a feeling of rising prosperity that seems costless. China went through that over the last 18 months and it's time to pay the piper. It is going to be impossible to tame short of crashing their economy to subdue the fundamental labor supply picture, crash the RE market to increase purchasing power in terms of land or crash the stock market through contraction of the overall money supply. I expect more than one will be needed and likely all three will happen when they try to trigger any one readjustment.

One final comment. The divergence between Chinese consumer inflation and US CPI dis-inflation is strong supporting evidence for the Austrian and Monetarist schools view of the matter. Both consider inflation to be a matter of increasing amounts of money (really credit). Private credit is tanking in the US and has been for some time while China forced their banks to lend massively more.

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