Sunday, June 16

China Says It Will Start Buying Apartments as Housing Slump Worsens

In a housing crisis that shows no end, the Chinese government is stepping in as a buyer of last resort.

Chinese officials on Friday took their boldest step yet, unveiling a nationwide plan to buy up some of the vast housing stock languishing on the market. They also loosened rules for mortgages.

The flurry of activity came just hours after new economic data revealed a hard truth: No one wants to buy houses right now.

Policymakers have tried dozens of measures to entice home buyers and reverse a steep decline in the housing market that has shown few signs of recovering soon.

On Friday, authorities from across China dialed in to a video conference to discuss the challenges they faced. China’s vice premier, He Lifeng, announced a substantial shift in the government’s approach to dealing with the housing crunch, which has prompted households to cut spending. Mr. He said that local governments could begin to buy homes to start dealing with the huge numbers of empty apartments.

The government-purchased homes would then be used to provide affordable housing. Mr. He did not provide any details on when such a program would begin or how it would be funded.

The approach is similar to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, that the U.S. government established in 2008 to buy troubled assets after the collapse of the American housing market, said Larry Hu, chief China economist for Macquarie Group, an Australian financial firm.

“It’s a shift in policy in the sense that now local governments are getting into the market to buy property directly,” Mr. Hu said.

Some local governments have already been quietly testing out the this approach in cities like Jinan, Tianjin and Qingdao along China’s coast, and Chengdu in the south, but this is the first time a senior Chinese official has said anything about it on a national stage.

Addressing officials on Friday, Mr. He said they had to “fight the tough battle” of dealing with all the unfinished properties around the country, according to an official account from Chinese state media outlet Xinhua.

The People’s Bank of China on Friday said it would create a program to provide $41.5 billion in cheap loans to help local state-owned enterprises to buy housing that has already been built but not yet sold.

The government’s official data shows that Beijing has a long way to go to increase confidence in the real estate market. The amount of unsold homes is at a record high, and prices are declining at a record pace.

The inventory of unsold homes was equivalent to 748 million square meters, or more than 8 billion square feet, as of March, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. In April, new home prices in 70 cities fell 3.5 percent compared with a year ago, while existing home prices fell 6.8 percent, both record-breaking declines.

Hours after the numbers on home prices were released on Friday, China’s central bank took steps to encourage home purchases by slashing requirements on down payments. It also did away with a nationwide mortgage interest rate.

“Policymakers are desperate to boost sales,” said Rosealea Yao, a real estate expert at Gavekal, a China focused research firm. The central bank has been lowering mortgage rates for several years and the average rate before this move was already at a record low.

China’s leaders have set a goal of about 5 percent economic growth this year, a plan that many independent economists believe is ambitious and will require aggressive government spending.

To that end, China also said on Friday that it had raised $5.5 billion from its first sale of 30-year bonds as part of a broader plan to raise $140 billion over the next six months.

China’s housing crisis has been fueled by years of heavy borrowing by developers and overbuilding that underpinned much of the country’s remarkable decades-long run of rapid economic growth.

But when the government finally intervened in 2020 to put an end to risky practices by developers, many companies were already on the precipice of collapse. One of its biggest developers, China Evergrande, defaulted in late 2021 under huge piles of debt. It left behind hundreds of thousands of unfinished apartments and unpaid bills worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The real estate crisis has left many Chinese families, who once poured their life savings into property, without viable alternatives for building wealth. They have few other good options since China’s stock market, although it has recovered in recent months, remains volatile. Savings rates are generally low.

Evergrande was the first in a string of prominent defaults that now punctuate the industry. A Hong Kong court ordered the company to be liquidated in January. Another beleaguered real estate giant, Country Garden, had its first hearing on Friday in a Hong Kong court in a case brought by an investor seeking the company’s liquidation.

Zixu Wang contributed research from Hong Kong.