How to Grab a Piece of China's Real Estate Boom

TAIPEI (TheStreet) -- Chinese ex-president Hu Jintao knew his people felt safest investing in real estate, given stock market obstacles. But that fueled speculation that drove home prices out of reach of the country's restless aspiring middle class. He attacked that price growth a year ago with a list of hardline measures.

But Hu's famed five national rules on real estate written to curb speculative home buys did little to property prices following a steep rise in the second half of 2012. Then his successor Xi Jinping basically dropped the rules after he became president in March.

That shift should give historically hesitant overseas real estate investors a chance to drop their guard in China. On page 2 of this article I list stocks investors might consider to buy into the Chinese real estate boom.

Home prices rose 15% to 20% per month in China's biggest cities much of last year. From the second half, price growth has shown signs of moderation.

Oversupply of housing in multiple cities is leading developers to cut prices, since more are on the way, investment bank Credit Suisse says in a Feb. 25 research note. Supply surged to keep up with speculation.

China responded to the problem by stepping aside. That shows that the Xi government means what it says about leaving more up to the free market.

"Letting the market decide has slowed prices," says James Macdonald, head of research with the real estate services firm Savills China in Shanghai. "I presume the government would be less likely to introduce new policies given that the growth has decreased over the past six months. Prices have slowed, which is what any government wants."

A Feb. 20 commentary glibly titled "Property Rules Not Working" appeared in the state-monitored newspaper Global Times. It further suggests that Hu's year-old edicts to counter brisk sales through speculation are off the books.

Continued price moderation would motivate Beijing to let the market flourish by letting supply and demand call the shots. Though easing prices might repel a few developers, the freedom from government controls should attract them. And prices are still growing, just not as fast as a year ago.

Follow first the offshore real estate developers that already have a China strategy. They build ultra-high-end housing, malls and office complexes in obvious top cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Then they lease as well as sell. Leases depend less on real estate prices of the moment.

Singapore-based CapitalLand (CAPL:Singapore, CLLDY:OTC), for example, has long held a mix of malls, offices and residences. Hong Kong-based Henderson Land Development (0012.HK:Hong Kong) and the London-listed Kerry (KYGA:London) have fanned out around China in the same way.

These firms have the experience and connections to make the most of the less fettered market ahead. But Western developers, though shyer than Asian peers because of market entry barriers, are testing China now from the ever-safe foundation of joint ventures with local counterparts.

Giant global shopping mall developer Simon Property (SPG) is working with China's biggest retail developer Bailian (600631:Shangai) to build a mall next to the Shanghai Disney Resort (DIS).

Taubman TCBL, a year-old China-based subsidiary of Taubman Asia -- itself a subsidiary of Taubman Centers (TCO) -- has a joint venture with the Beijing Wangfujing Department Store (600859:Shanghai) for a controlling interest in a mixed-use shopping mall in the central Chinese super city of Xi'an.

High returns from these projects, even if not at history's highest prices, will inevitably invite new foreign capital.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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