Wenzhou punters cautious over property bets in Shanghai free-trade zone

Fears speculators would drive up prices in free-trade zone are unfounded

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 3:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 7:00am

Wenzhou residents have a reputation as bold punters, but prefer number-crunching to nervy bets these days.

The city in southeastern Zhejiang province was long a hub for the underground banking system before its spectacular collapse in 2011.

During the export boom days leading up to the crisis, black market lenders helped small manufacturers keep cash flows steady, and pocketed big gains on eye-watering interest rates. But when the economy turned, company failures mounted in Wenzhou, a city of about nine million, triggering a round of suicides. Some businesses were paying as much as 7 per cent interest a month to loan sharks in an effort to stay afloat.

In the aftermath, Beijing moved to reform the city's financial underpinnings. Last Saturday, the city formally adopted new rules for private lending, in a bid to ease small companies' access to credit. But it remains to be seen whether they are willing to turn to regulated lenders.

Meanwhile, residents who survived the financial turbulence are sitting on an estimated 700 billion yuan (HK$886 billion), and some punters have turned their gaze to Shanghai.

When the free-trade zone was launched last September, the media carried reports about Wenzhou speculators descending on the area or neighbouring strips and snapping up retail spaces, betting big on soaring price increases.

Speculators are carefully running the numbers before taking the plunge

The investment frenzy fuelled worries of a property bubble that would undermine Shanghai's push to establish a mini-Hong Kong, fears that failed to materialise.

Unlike before, Wenzhou speculators are carefully running the numbers before taking the plunge. Properties, for instance, won't be considered unless annualised rental returns hit at least 6 per cent.

The caution is in stark contrast to the early 2000s, when thousands of Wenzhou investors travelled around the mainland buying up new residential properties. Their euphoria was seen by some as dangerous and a contributing factor to the market's eventual overheating.

But the Wenzhou investors' boldness paid off as soaring home prices brought them substantial returns.

Some mainlanders could be forgiven for thinking the hoopla surrounding Shanghai's free-trade zone might trigger a new investment spree by Wenzhou punters.

But according to media reports, such fears are overblown. Several Wenzhou entrepreneurs have told the South China Morning Post they are more wary following the boom-to-bust runs.

Having drawn lessons from the credit crisis, Wenzhou businessmen are armed with a better understanding of risk and have decided to pursue investments that will deliver stable returns.

They dismiss pessimism over the mainland's economic outlook. Many say golden investment opportunities will arise again in future, although they are willing to be patient and cautious for now.

In case they need any reminder, back home in Wenzhou, the newspapers have long lists of homes to be auctioned by the courts as their former owners struggle after business failures.