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中国住房销量出现回升迹象

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There are tentative signs of improvement in a key sector of China's economy, as lower prices start to lure buyers back into the country's battered housing market.

The nascent uptick in home sales hasn't yet translated to a restarting of construction, a driver of jobs and economic activity; the supply of empty homes that built up during the boom remains large. Still, the fact that Chinese households are responding to falling mortgage costs and lower real-estate prices is a positive sign for consumer spending in the world's third-biggest economy.

The volume of residential property sold nationwide in January and February inched up 1.1% from a year earlier, government figures show. That compared with a 20.3% decline for all of 2008. According to Soufun a property consultancy, the numbers for housing transactions in major cities have continued to rise in the past few weeks, including for Beijing in the north, Chongqing in the west, and Shanghai and Hangzhou in the east.

'The Chinese housing market may have a good chance to be among the first ones to see real signs of picking up,' said Mei Jianping, a professor of finance at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, speaking just before flying to London for Thursday's summit of the Group of 20 major economies, said the early effects of his government's stimulus policies already are evident, giving him confidence that China's growth will stabilize.

China's housing boom wasn't as heavily fueled by easy credit as those in the U.S. or Spain were, analysts say, and there is still real demand for homes from its urbanizing population. In February, average housing prices in China were down 1.2% from a year earlier. U.S. declines have been far sharper. For the three-month period ended in January, the S&P Case Shiller Index -- which tracks prices in 20 U.S. metropolian areas -- fell 19% from a year earlier.

Huang Yang, a 26-year-old in Beijing who works for a financial magazine, bought a modest 46-square-meter apartment in December.

'I had thought about buying an apartment for a long time. I am tired of looking for apartments to rent,' Ms. Huang said. The fact that the price of her apartment had dropped by nearly 15% from the peak helped convince her to take the plunge.

Many analysts forecast a further decline of 10% to 15% in Chinese property prices this year, thanks to the huge existing supply.

How many more Chinese follow Ms. Huang into the housing market this year will be crucial to determining whether China can meet its leaders' goal of 8% economic growth, or end up closer to the 5% that some private-sector analysts expect. The government's stimulus plan, while large, can't restore growth without a return of private-sector investment.

Because China's construction sector accounts for a big part of global demand for raw materials such as steel and copper, housing also will help determine the path that commodity prices take.

Housing sales are still well below their levels in the boom years, and given the uncertain economy and rising unemployment, Chinese consumers aren't likely to splurge this year. More important, analysts say the large supply of unoccupied housing needs to be sold off before developers start to build again.

Nationwide, construction starts declined 14.8% in the first two months of 2009 from a year earlier, and purchases of land for development also are still falling. While some economists predict a turnaround by the second half of the year, businesses are still adjusting to what they expect to be a much weaker market. British home-improvement retailer Kingfisher PLC said last week it plans to cut the number of its B&Q stores in China to 41 from 63 this year.

According to Dragonomics, a Beijing-based research firm, 90 million square meters of new, vacant residential property were built in 2008, equivalent to about 820,000 units. Citigroup analysts estimate that real-estate markets in most major Chinese cities will take more than a year to digest the current backlog, and some 20 months in some.

'The market cannot clear in just one or two quarters,' the State Information Center, a government think tank, said in a recent report. 'This means that the current industrial adjustment will extend for some time into the future.'

Still, the perception that prices are bottoming is causing home buyers like Xia Feng, a 33-year-old bank employee in Shanghai, to think the worst may be past. He had been eying one place for nearly a year, but held off because prices were too high. When Mr. Xia found out that the price of the unit, near his daughter's school, had dropped 20%, he signed the deal.

'Last year, there was no doubt that prices would go down,' Mr. Xia said, but further declines now seem less of a sure bet.

作为中国经济的重要部分,中国住房市场初步浮现好转迹象,因为房价走低开始吸引购房者重新进入疲软低迷的房市。

住房销量的初期上扬还没有转化为建筑活动的重新启动,而建筑活动是中国就业市场和经济活动的推动力。住房热潮时期修建的空置房屋供应量依然庞大。不过,中国家庭正在对抵押贷款成本下滑和房价下跌作出反应,这是全球第三大经济体中国消费者支出方面的一个积极迹象。

政府数据显示,今年1-2月份全国住房销量较上年同期增长了1.1%,而2008年全年下降了20.3%。根据房产咨询机构搜房网(SouFun.com)的数据,过去几周中国主要城市的房屋交易量持续上升,包括北京、重庆、上海和杭州等各地主要城市。

北京长江商学院金融学教授梅建平说,中国住房市场很有可能成为首批见到实际回升迹象的住房市场。

中国国家主席胡锦涛在离京参加二十国集团(G20)伦敦峰会之前表示,中国政府的刺激政策已初见成效,政府有信心继续保持中国经济平稳较快发展。

分析师们表示,与美国或西班牙的情况不同,中国的住房市场热潮并没有那么严重地依赖于宽松信贷,而且中国不断城市化的人口仍然有实际住房需求。今年2月份,中国平均房价较上年同期下跌了1.2%,而美国房价的降幅要大得多。截至1月份的3个月,追踪美国20大城市房价走势的标准普尔/Case Shiller房价指数较上年同期下滑了19%。

26岁的北京人黄阳(音)为一家财经杂志工作。去年12月,她购买了一套46平米的小户住房。

黄阳说,我考虑买房已经有很长时间了。我厌倦了租房生活。后来黄阳看到现在房子的价格较峰值下跌了将近15%,这促使她决定买下来。

许多分析师预计,中国房价今年会进一步下跌10%-15%,主要受当前巨大供应量拖累。

今年还有多少中国人追随黄阳进入房市,这个问题至关重要,将决定中国经济今年究竟是实现领导人制定的8%增长目标,还是如一些私营部门分析师所预测的那样只能增长5%。尽管政府推出了巨额刺激计划,但如果私营部门投资没有回升,恐怕难以推动经济增长复苏。

这是因为钢铁和铜等原材料的全球需求很大部分来自中国建筑部门,住房市场走势也将在一定程度上决定大宗商品价格的走势。

中国住房销量仍然明显低于住房热潮时期的水平,而且考虑到经济前景不明朗,失业人数不断上升,中国消费者今年不太可能大举支出。更为重要的是,分析师们认为大量空置住房供应卖完之前,开发商不会再次开始施工建设。

今年前两个月,中国建筑开工较上年同期下降了14.8%,开发商购买的项目用地也仍在不断下降。尽管一些经济学家预计今年下半年情况会出现好转,但企业仍然预计市场会显著走软,并据此进行调整。英国家居零售商Kingfisher PLC上周表示,打算今年将旗下中国百安居(B&Q)门店数目从63家削减至41家。

北京研究公司龙州经讯(Dragonomics)预计,2008年中国建造了9,000万平方米的新建空置房,相当于大约82万套住房。花旗集团(Citigroup)分析师预计,中国大多数主要城市的房地产市场需要一年多的时间才能消化现有库存,一些城市可能需要20个月。

中国政府智库国家信息中心近期发表报告称,房地产市场一两个季度内无法消化库存。这意味着当前行业调整还将持续一段时间。

不过,房价正在触底的想法正促使夏风(音)等买房者认为最低迷的时期可能已经过去。夏风是上海一名33岁的银行职员。他看中一个地段的房子已经有将近一年时间了,但一直因为房价过高而犹豫不决。当夏风发现临近他女儿学校的那套房子价格下跌了20%的时候,他随即就决定签约购房。

夏风说,去年没人会怀疑房价要下跌,但现在来看,房价进一步下跌似乎就不太确定了。
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