BEIJING China's home price rises eased for the first time in 14 months in January, the latest sign that the government's more than four-year campaign to rein in property risk may finally be starting to bite.
Average new home prices in China's 70 major cities rose 9.6 percent in January from a year earlier, easing from the previous month's 9.9 percent rise, according to Reuters calculations based on data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on Monday.
It was the first slowdown in the rate of price increases since November 2012.
House prices in China have surged in the past year but the market began to show signs of losing momentum at the end of 2013 as local governments took further tightening measures at the prompting of a central government worried about the risk of an asset bubble.
"Because of the effects of a series of government measures including tightening curbs in some cities and an increasing supply of affordable housing, the market environment and pricing expectations were relatively stable," said Liu Jianwei, a senior statistician at the NBS.
"Tightening credit conditions and easing pressures from housing inventories also helped home sales to drop, which in turn eased the home price rises further in some cities," Liu said in a statement accompanying the data.
Prices in the capital Beijing rose 14.7 percent in January from a year earlier, easing from December's year-on-year increase of 16 percent, and the third month of slowing gains after a record jump in October.
Shanghai price gains eased to 17.5 percent in January from a year ago, versus 18.2 percent annual growth in December.
Home sales were also likely to have cooled in most major cities in January due to the Lunar New Year holiday, when business activity slows markedly.
With China's annual parliament session coming up in March, analysts are also looking ahead to the possibility of further price-calming measures being announced, making it difficult to predict whether the slowdown will continue.
However, many analysts expect gains to moderate this year on relatively tight liquidity and subdued demand following strong demand seen in 2013.
NBS housing data at the end of last year had shown the first signs that the relentless rises of 2013 were coming to an end, and a growing number of experts and developers are no longer as optimistic on the sector. Some have started to talk about downside risks.
Adding to concerns over the market, the official Shanghai Securities Journal said on Monday that China's Industrial Bank Co Ltd (601166.SS) had suspended some types of property-related loans, although several other banks have kept property loan policies unchanged.
Industrial Bank later confirmed in a statement that it had halted mezzanine financing for the real estate sector which accounts for a small portion of its overall lending business, pending new rules on its property-related loans to be unveiled by the end of March.
Shares in property developer China Vanke Co Ltd (000002.SZ) fell 6.6 percent on Monday after the report, while China Resources Land Ltd (1109.HK) ended down 6 percent.
Mortgage lenders including Agricultural Bank of China Ltd (601288.SS), Bank of Communications Co Ltd (601328.SS) and China Merchants Bank Co Ltd (600036.SS) did not respond to calls.
Separately, media reported that some property developers in the eastern city of Hangzhou had started to cut home prices as some of them are in urgent need of cash.
The NBS figure showed Hangzhou's home prices dropped 0.1 percent in January from the previous month, along with four other cities that saw month-on-month drops in January.
However, developers in Shanghai reached by Reuters on Monday said they had no plan to cut prices and were not concerned about the talk of bank lending curbs.
"The rumors will not influence us. Lingang is very popular now and the price will only go up," said a salesman at a Shanghai-based property firm, referring to a property development in the city's Pudong district.
Analysts, however, said that tighter liquidity and moderate home sales this year may force developers to become more reasonable about pricing their projects.
"We do not rule out the possibility of more projects employing price-cutting strategies due to various project or company-specific reasons," Alvin Wong, a property analyst at Barclays, said in a research note.
"Nevertheless, we think the chance for substantial price cuts to spread over the whole sector remains slim," Wong said.
China's property market has seen a divergence between big cities, where strong demand and short supply have pushed up prices rapidly, and small ones, where rises have tended to be slower on soft demand.
"Property price differences between first- or second-tier and third- or fourth-tier cities can be expected to remain noticeable over coming months," Weibin Xu, a senior consultant at EC Harris, said in an emailed comment.
Another factor working against government measures is a hot land market in some main cities.
Combined revenues from land sales in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen reached 81.9 billion yuan ($13.5 billion) in January, more than twice that in the same period last year, according to data from China Real Estate Information Corp, a property data provider.
(Reporting by Xiaoyi Shao and Jonathan Standing; Additional reporting by Clement Tan in Hong Kong, Gabriel Wildau in Shanghai, and the Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Robert Birsel)