November 11, 2009 Wednesday

This for developers and their customers

NO PROPERTY bubble shall be tolerated. This bald assertion went down like a splash of cold water on the fast heating market when, in September, the Government stopped home loans on easy terms and chose not to extend concessionary support for developers upon its scheduled expiry next year. These concessions were granted in the last Budget. Speculative demand did slow as a result of these moves, but price levels were still too high for comfort. Developers were pushing their luck cashing in after a fallow period. Last week came an early announcement that land sales targeted at mass market buyers, including parcels for executive condominiums, will be available for bids early next year. Land releases have a gestation period between tender and launch, but the depressant effect on sentiment is immediate. The market understands that, like nothing else. This undoubtedly was the intention of the National Development Ministry, as the consensus among government trend trackers is that the variable economic recovery is hard to chart. It makes sense that asset price inflation associated with unjustified market exuberance has to be checked.

Within days, the Monetary Authority of Singapore reinforced the message with a prominent warning on real estate activity in its year-end Financial Stability Review. It cited risks covering the opposing contingencies of a faltering economic recovery leading to property portfolio devaluations, and a sustained recovery leading inevitably to higher interest rates, which would be trouble for the over-leveraged and the illiquid. The central bank's concern about macro stability is naturally holistic, seeing what adverse impact unrestrained stock and property bets in a period of unstable growth can have on the soundness of the banking system. Household debt shall not grow onerous, it is saying by extension. Banks' lending capacity must remain unimpeded so as to keep the economy oiled. It would be compromised if the rebound falters and brings in its train business failures, job losses and the ultimate danger of soured loans forcing banks to be again stringent with credit. The MAS bottom line (developers should prick their ears up here) is that further intervention in the property market would be necessary if 'speculative momentum' re-emerged.

Buying activity and price levels for the rest of the year and up till the next Budget is presented will tell if the industry and its customers see the inherent risks of acting too hastily on the rebound. It took Hong Kong a dozen years for property values to right themselves. But stable growth never stood a chance in that archetypal monetised enclave. Its government is now desperately acting to head off a bubble forming.