Asia acts over fears of property bubble
SINGAPORE: Asian countries fearing a disastrous US-style property bubble are striving to cool down their real-estate markets as the region powers out of the global financial crisis.
Policymakers are worried that excessive exuberance could push property prices far above their real value, only to crash and bring down with them banks that lent money too freely and individuals who borrowed beyond their means.
"It is better to pre-empt a bubble than wait for it to get serious and have to take more drastic measures," Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last month after the city-state took fresh measures against speculation.
Singapore was one of the countries hit by the 1997-1998 Asian financial meltdown. That crisis followed a property crash, leaving a blighted landscape of unfinished projects across the region and banks gasping for lifelines.
Problems in the US housing market had set off the devastating financial firestorm that swept across the world in late 2008 and lasted well into 2009.
While Asia is now leading the global economic recovery, officials are determined to avert another crisis.
Low interest rates, strong demand and speculation have pushed property prices in many Asian cities higher, in some cases surpassing peaks reached in 2007.
"The risk of an asset bubble is quite high in certain (economies) such as China, Hong Kong and Singapore," said Chua Yang Liang, head of Southeast Asia research at property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle.
A bursting of that bubble could "potentially derail economic growth, especially if banks and other investment houses are overly exposed to those sectors", Chua told AFP, singling out real estate as a cause of concern.
In China, property prices in 70 major cities hit a 21-month high in January.
Beijing has tightened lending, requiring buyers of second homes to put up a downpayment of at least 40 percent, and they also face higher interest rates on their mortgage loans.
In Singapore, where housing prices have been heating up since last year, the government slapped additional duties on sellers who flip a residential property within a year of buying it.
Home buyers are also now limited to borrowing up to 80 percent of the property's value, instead of 90 percent.
In densely packed Hong Kong, home to one of the world's most frenetic property markets, authorities are fretting about a surge of speculative money since late 2008.
Starting April, the territory will increase the stamp duty for sales of flats worth 20 million Hong Kong dollars (2.6 million US) or more from 3.75 percent to 4.25 percent.
Prices of some Hong Kong luxury flats have returned to 1997 boom levels.
In October last year, Henderson Land Development said it had sold a luxury duplex apartment for a world record of 88,000 Hong Kong dollars (11,300 US) per square foot, or a price tag of 57 million US dollars.
Australia's central bank on Tuesday lifted interest rates afresh. One factor it cited was a "solid" increase in mortgages, "and dwelling prices have risen significantly over the past year".
Median house prices in Sydney rose 12.1 percent in 2009 and 18.5 percent in Melbourne, and observers said the rise was likely to continue.
But Simon Vinson, head of Asian property at AMP Capital Investors, said he did not see the overall Asian market overheating.
"It's really only been the residential market that has experienced strong price growth. Commercial markets remain less buoyant," he said.
The rise in residential property prices is just a "retracing" of some of the losses suffered by the sector during the global downturn, he said.
"Is this a bubble? At the overall market level, we believe it is more a reversion," he said.
Analysts also said that unlike their counterparts in the West, Asian banks are not over-exposed to the property market.
"Banks in Singapore, China and Hong Kong have been managing their risks quite well as the respective monetary authorities provide strict instructions on banking operations," said Chua Chor Hoon, head of Southeast Asia Research at property consultancy DTZ.
Chua of Jones Lang LaSalle said that in Asia, "the share of mortgages as a proportion of total bank lending is still within healthy levels".