Is China's real estate bubble about to burst?

The biggest housing bubble in history created by China's rapid growth may be about to burst. One of the country's leading commercial real estate moguls says that residential property development has reached the end of the road. One expert is predicting growth to continue in commercial property, but believes the residential market is coming to an end.

February 28, 2013 5:05 PM
CBS News

The biggest housing bubble in history created by China's rapid growth and the massive investment in real estate by its burgeoning middle class may be about to burst. One of the country's leading commercial real estate moguls, Zhang Xin, tells Lesley Stahl that residential property development has reached the end of the road. And with the prices of millions of existing housing units falling since last year, China's largest residential builder, Vanke Chairman Wang Shi, tells Stahl he is seeing protests from angry investors and fears an Arab Spring-like uprising if the bottom falls out of the market. Stahl's report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, March 3 at 7:00 p.m. ET/PT.

Zhang Xin, who had once worked as a Wall Street analyst, is the fifth richest, self-made billionaire in the world. She and her husband/partner Pan Shiyi have built some of Beijing's most iconic new skyscrapers - towering, avant-garde office buildings that symbolize China's red-hot economy. Zhang Xin says she expects growth to continue in Beijing and Shanghai's prime commercial property, where she has focused. The residential market, which she has avoided, is another story. "My own view is that residential property development in China has really come [to] an end," she says.

The 47-year-old CEO of SOHO China grew up poor and likens her success to the American Dream, calling China a new land of opportunity. "China is the place that produced more self-made billionaires than any other country in the world," she tells Stahl.

Those billionaires were created by an economy that in just 30 years has become the second largest in the world. One of the main drivers of this growth, however, has been real estate. Since 1998, when the government allowed citizens to own their own homes, an emerging middle class snapped up inventory and created demand for more because there a few other options in China for them to safeguard their money and to invest in. Interest-rates are low at the banks, the local stock market is volatile, and the government forbids investment overseas. This has pushed home prices through the roof. Today, Stahl reports seeing miles and miles of housing developments, whole cities, where all the units are sold but no one lives in them. They're merely investment vehicles.

The Chinese government is aware of this problem. To slow down the bubble's growth, the government made it hard for investors to buy more than one apartment in major cities, leading to a plunge in prices. But this drop in demand then caused many developers to run out of cash and stop projects midway, leading to a slowdown in construction and the economic growth it spurred. If growth stops, developers will not be able to repay loans, a debt crisis could ensue and the economy could seize up. Not unlike the financial crisis that followed our real estate collapse in the U.S. Many worry this could lead to social unrest. One person sounding the alarm bell is China's biggest residential home builder, Wang Shi.

When he slashed prices last year, he saw demonstrations at his showrooms by angry homeowner-investors, many of whom have their entire savings invested in real estate, and they were watching their investments lose value. He fears things could get worse. "If that bubble breaks...who knows what will happen...maybe the next Arab Spring," Wang Shi tells Stahl.

The government is in a Catch-22 now: propping up the industry with more money may prevent social upheaval, but only make the bubble bigger, maybe too big for even China to control. But Wang Shi remains hopeful, "I believe that [China's] top leaders have enough smarts to deal with that." Then he pauses, and adds: "I hope!"

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