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Singapore developers take great leap forward

City-state's firms bet on rising affluence, wider home ownership in populous PRC

Singapore developers take great leap forward

Billboards at housing projects in China's main cities often proclaim: "Built by a Singapore developer" - a sign of how the city-state's reputation for rigorous urban planning gives its developers an edge.

Now, those billboards are sprouting up in China's second-tier cities, from Ningbo in the east to Chengdu in the southwest, as Singapore's top property firms bet on rising affluence and wider home ownership in the world's most populous nation.

"Singapore is a very good brand name in China. People expect a better quality of product," said Lim Ming Yan, China chief executive at CapitaLand, Southeast Asia's biggest property developer.

Singapore developers, flush with cash and facing a saturated home market, are expanding beyond Beijing and Shanghai to where markets are less developed.

China already brings in a third of their profits and they see scope for this to grow as more Chinese enter a market that was liberalized to allow private home ownership only a decade and a half ago.

But analysts say this shift beyond the biggest cities is not without risk as the legal environment is less certain and there could be a repeat of the bursting of Shanghai's property bubble.

Margins are thinner in the Chinese hinterland as there are fewer foreign buyers for luxury apartments and developers can get embroiled in legal disputes given that private negotiations are still the norm in these less developed markets.

But even as property prices in Shanghai cool off after years of spectacular growth both CapitaLand and Keppel Land see strong demand for homes, shopping malls and offices in China's fast-growing secondary cities.

China - almost as big in area as the United States but with four times the population - is seeing more people move from the countryside to the cities amid an economic boom. Pressure on its housing and infrastructure will grow, with China's urban population projected to double to 900 million by 2020. "Demand for quality housing has soared with affluence," said William Ong, general manager in Shanghai for KepLand, Singapore's third-ranked property developer by sales.

At end-March, a few weeks before the government introduced measures to curb real estate speculation, Chinese mortgage loans hit 1.67 trillion yuan (US$207 billion), exploding from next to nothing since 1998 when Beijing stopped providing urban workers with free housing.

"It's no longer just confined to cities like Shanghai and Beijing but extending inland," said Ong.

In Chengdu - China's fourth city, with 10 million people - annual per capita income averages US$4,246, about half of that in Shanghai, but it is rising at 13 percent a year.

KepLand's Ong said about half the new property sales in cities such as Chengdu are to people from outside the city, such as retired chemist Hu Jun Ming and her husband, Shen Ye.

The China-born couple, who have lived in New York for the past 20 years, bought a new, two-bedroom flat in Chengdu for 690,000 yuan (US$85,420) so they had somewhere to stay on their annual trips from the United States.

"We thought it might get cheaper but it hasn't. Now the yuan is going up and the U.S. dollar down," said 64-year-old Hu as she studied the apartment plans in KepLand's swanky Chengdu showroom, replete with bamboo and ponds full of Koi carp.

Secondary cities

Like foreign investors such as Morgan Stanley Real Estate Funds and ING Real Estate - both in residential joint ventures with Hong Kong-listed Shanghai Forte - Singapore's biggest property firms have tended to focus on China's financial center Shanghai and capital Beijing.

In office properties, Singapore firms such as KepLand and CapitaLand compete against Hong Kong's Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd. and Hang Lung Properties Ltd., while U.S. mall developers Taubman Centers Inc. and Simon Property Group are rivals in building shopping centers.

Shanghai accounts for over half of CapitaLand's China sales, according to Lim, but he predicts the firm's China revenues will soon be split evenly between Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

CapitaLand had China assets of 2.2 billion Singapore dollars (US$1.3 billion), or about 13 percent of its total assets, at end-September. It has started to build 25 malls all over the country and is breaking ground on office and residential projects in coastal cities such as Guangzhou and Ningbo.

Rival KepLand is building high-density, high-rise homes in the western province of Sichuan, and in Jiangsu in the east.

KepLand, with investments of 320 million Singapore dollars in China, has raised its stake in Singapore-listed Chinese property developer Dragon Land Ltd. to 52 percent and said the unit will develop housing in cities such as Qingdao, where annual per capita incomes average about US$6,000.

Smaller firms such as GuocoLand Ltd., Allgreen Properties and Ho Bee Group are also active in China, though still mainly concentrated on Shanghai.

Well placed

Singapore developers face fewer international rivals outside China's leading cities, competing instead against local developers such as Overseas Chinese Land, Vanke Co. Ltd. and Shanghai Forte Co. Ltd.

Analysts say Singapore firms, which have strong cash balances and a reputation for quality, are better placed to take on their Chinese rivals, many of whom face financing pressure due to tight bank lending policies and a property slump in Shanghai.

In Shanghai, some properties have fallen 45 percent in value since May after mortgage rates rose and the government imposed sales taxes to curb property speculation.

Singapore builders say prices of their Shanghai projects have not declined and sales have since rebounded after an initial slowdown. The impact was also limited to Shanghai.

Developers generally seek rates of return of at least 25 percent in China, but have got as much as 40 percent from some projects in Shanghai during its boom days.

Although the open-tender system is being adopted nationwide, developers need to be wary about local customs and private negotiations are still the norm in smaller markets and some developers have found themselves embroiled in legal disputes.

"When you buy a piece of land in China, you have to be very sure that your title deeds are clean and clear, that your resettlements are all resolved," said Liew Mun Leong, head of CapitaLand, describing China's immature market as a "minefield."

Updated : 2021-08-05 13:19 GMT+08:00