China's property investment growth hits five-year high driven by smaller cities

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s property investment accelerated in the first two months of the year driven by strong demand in its hinterland and defying a decline in sales, government curbs in bigger markets and a broader economic slowdown.

FILE PHOTO: A worker stands on the scaffolding at a construction site against a backdrop of residential buildings in Huaian, Jiangsu province, China October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Real estate investment, which mainly focuses on the residential sector but also includes commercial and office space, is a key driver of growth for the world’s second-largest economy.

It rose 11.6 percent in January-February from a year earlier, up from the 9.5 percent growth reported for the 2018 full year, data from National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed on Thursday.

That marks the strongest growth for the January-February period since 2014, when it rose 19.3 percent.

The NBS said robust investment in the property sector was due to steady housing prices and an increase in property construction.

“China’s real estate market continues to show strong resilience,” said Yang Yewei, a Beijing-based analyst with Southwest Securities.

Developers say market sentiment has improved recently thanks to looser credit policies. Beijing has also become less worried about cities easing existing curbs and is more concerned about the broader economic impact of the trade war with the United States.

“The market has obviously become better this month,” said a senior executive from a top Chinese developer, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to media.

“The surge in investment is because many developers began construction on land to replenish their inventory as housing stock has kept falling,” he said, adding many tier-2 cities are running on merely three to four months of inventory.

But the cooling trend in sales suggests that such a rebound will be difficult to maintain while the real estate market still faces relatively significant downward pressure, Southwest Securities’ Yang added.

Housing transactions slowed as property sales by floor area fell 3.6 percent year-on-year in the first two months of 2019, easing from the 0.9 percent gain in December.

New construction starts measured by floor area were also much weaker, rising 6 percent in January-February from a year earlier compared with the 20.5 percent in December, according to Reuters calculations.

The NBS does not release individual monthly investment data for January or February but combines them to account for the seasonal distortions from the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, which typically falls in either month.

Slower sales continued to hit China’s real estate developers’ bottom line. They raised 2.45 trillion yuan ($365.38 billion) in the first two months of the year, up 2.1 percent from the same period last year, slower than the 6.4 percent rise in the full year of 2018, the NBS said.

The real estate market has shown signs of fatigue in recent months in the face of persistent government curbs on speculative investment, as Beijing is seeking to reduce debt risks in the financial system.

Failed land auctions in China have increased significantly since the second half of 2018. Land transaction fees in 40 major Chinese cities fell 20.9 percent in January-February period from the same time a year earlier, according to the state-run Securities Times.

But policymakers are wary about not destabilizing growth and have vowed to promote healthy development of the real estate market, which has for some time been one of the stronger parts of the economy.

Other data released on Thursday showed growth in China’s industrial output fell to a 17-year low in the first two months of the year.

In some smaller cities, authorities have loosened restrictions on property purchases to stoke revenue from their slowing real estate markets. Many centers still report rapid price gains thanks to heavy government investment and a national program to redevelop the country’s slums.

China set its 2019 economic growth target at 6.0-6.5 percent this year, slower than the growth recorded in 2018.

Reporting by Yawen Chen, Min Zhang and Kevin Yao; Editing by Sam Holmes