SHANGHAI Beijing's measures to cool "ridiculous" property prices have made some progress, but the risks of a bubble mean the tightening campaign is unlikely to ease up in the year ahead, the chairman of China's largest property developer said.
Skyrocketing property prices in China's top cities have stocked public discontent, prompting the government to step in. Measures introduced since April have made it more difficult for speculators and developers hoard land and chase up prices, while lending has also been restricted.
"Tightening measures will not loosen next year," China Vanke (000002.SZ) Chairman Wang Shi told the Reuters China Investment Summit on Thursday.
"If we can control the pace of property price gains within a reasonable range, it's already an achievement."
Wang, a former chicken feed trader who has twice scaled Mount Everest, projected Vanke's property sales will grow at a slower rate in 2011 after growing more than 80 percent in 2010 to a record 100 billion yuan ($15 billion).
Sales will at least grow at a compound annual growth rate of 20 percent to 200 billion yuan ($30 billion) by 2014, said Wang, who founded the company in the 1980s in China's manufacturing boom town of Shenzhen.
JAPAN'S PAST, CHINA'S FUTURE?
China risked a Japanese-style real estate bubble if the government doesn't control what Wang described as ridiculous property price moves in its top-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
"It could be really, really bad without the government stepping in," said the soft-spoken Wang, who was dressed in a minimalist style, with an open-collared white shirt and black jacket.
"If the bubble bursts, Japan's past will be China's present."
Beijing has intensified curbs in the real estate sector, but 2010 still looks set to be one of Vanke's best years. Property sales already exceeded 100 billion yuan so far this year.
Sales expanded 146 percent in November from a year ago to 12.87 billion yuan even after the government raised down-payment requirements and lending rates for mortgages and capped the number of houses an individual can purchase.
Vanke has a presence in more than 40 Chinese cities.
Wang is no stranger to challenges. The 59-year-old has a passion for extreme sports and made it to the peak of Mount Everest twice over the past seven years.
He also has a keen eye for the market. Wang supervised a strategy shift at Vanke two years ago when the sector was badly hit by a liquidity squeeze to focus on mass housing instead of luxury homes -- the target of China's latest property tightening measures.
Although Wang worries about the risks of a bubble in China's property sector, he brushed aside talk that the country may end up worse than Dubai where a property price bubble imploded during the global financial crisis after years of heedless expansion.
Wang said demand remains strong for affordable housing especially in the so-called fourth-tier cities, adding property prices in the top-tier cities will hold up well, albeit at a slower pace, due to the scarcity of land.
Not everyone is convinced.
Among the loudest critics, legendary short-seller Jim Chanos has said he is shorting China because he expects the economy to implode in a real estate bust. China is "on an economic treadmill to hell" and the country's real estate-fueled bubble is "Dubai times 1,000," said Chanos.
"It's not comparable. These are very different markets," said Wang, referring to Chanos' Dubai analogy.
KING OF CHICKEN FEED
One of China's first generation and most successful entrepreneurs, Wang's rags-to-riches story has dovetailed neatly with three decades of economic reforms in the world's fastest-growing major economy.
"The admirable thing about him is that he is someone who is willing to change," said David Ng, a property analyst at RBS in Hong Kong. "If the market changes, he is willing to change his view."
Wang made his first millions in the 1980s trading animal-feed corn in Shenzhen -- the birth place of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms and opening up policies.
The corn business was so good it earned the nickname "king of chicken feed" in the early 1980s. But once the restless Wang made his first millions, he set his sights even higher.
He used money from the corn business to start a new company that obtained government foreign exchange quotas to import electrical appliances particularly televisions and video cameras to sell in the domestic market.
His wealth swelled but profit margins for the video camera business quickly shrank due to cut-throat competition. In 1988, Wang changed the name of his company to China Vanke and launched its first residential development in Shenzhen.
The former soldier in the People's Liberation Army is to spent a year at the Harvard University next year as a visiting scholar to fulfill his aspiration of studying at an Ivy League university, he told Reuters.