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How Chinese Investors Play U.S. Property Without Leaving Home

BEIJING (TheStreet) -- Maybe you've heard that rich Chinese investors have been buzzing into the United States to buy Manhattan office buildings and California condos.

In a lesser-known trend, rank-and-file Chinese investors who've never left home are making money on U.S. real estate through government-controlled funds that put money into American real estate investment trusts and developers.

So while U.S. investors play Chinese stocks and prepare for a what could be a record-high initial public offering in New York by e-commerce giant Alibaba, probably this month, Chinese investors are getting a profit kick out of the American property market.

In fact, according to a Thursday report on the Chinese financial data Web site Eastmoney, the U.S. property market is the sole target of five of the six overseas investment funds based in China with the highest yields so far this year.

Topping the list is the Penghua United States Real Estate Fund, which yielded 21.8% between January 1 and September 3. Its leading investment targets include Simon Property Group (SPG) , Host Hotels & Resorts (HST) , and Meritage Homes (MTH) . A marketing pitch on the fund's Web site includes photos of Dallas luxury condos owned by UDR (UDR) , a REIT in which Penghua is an investor.

Second on the high-yield is Lion Fund Global Real Estate, with a year-to-date return of 21.2% thanks to investments in several REITs including Extra Space Storage (EXR) , Simon Property and Host Hotels.

The third and fourth most profitable Chinese funds with money overseas, yielding around 19% each year-to-date, are separate funds run by GF Fund Management. They have money in Simon Property, Public Storage (PSA) and Prologis (PLD) .

A real estate investment fund managed by Harvest Fund Management ranked sixth on the list, yielding 15% since January by focusing on Simon Property, Boston Properties (BXP) and Equity Residential (EQR) .

By comparison, the Nasdaq US REIT Index had gained 20.5% this year through September 2.

Each of these Chinese funds operates with special permission from the Beijing government through the Qualified Direct Institutional Investor (QDII) program. The program, launched in 2006, gives common investors, through more than 100 qualified fund managers, their only legal access to overseas equities and other products.

Chinese media has recently quoted domestic fund managers as saying they're bullish on American real estate based on U.S. economic growth, an improving labor market and rising consumer confidence.

In addition to QDII, Chinese investors are expected to get overseas equities investing options soon through a pilot program that will open a window to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The two-way trading program, which will also give foreign investors first-time access to some stocks on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, is expected to launch next month.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

TheStreet Ratings team rates SIMON PROPERTY GROUP INC as a Buy with a ratings score of A-. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate SIMON PROPERTY GROUP INC (SPG) a BUY. This is based on the convergence of positive investment measures, which should help this stock outperform the majority of stocks that we rate. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its compelling growth in net income, revenue growth, notable return on equity, expanding profit margins and increase in stock price during the past year. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company shows weak operating cash flow." You can view the full analysis from the report here: SPG Ratings Report

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