VAT reform will have far-reaching impact on China’s real estate market and property valuations
Though the system is complex with some grey and uncertain areas it will help achieve equilibrium among all stakeholders
Value-added tax (VAT) has been in effect since May 1 this year for China’s real estate sector . All real estate stakeholders, including developers, owners, investors, asset managers and consultants, and especially auditors and tax advisors, have been learning the ropes to advise clients of its impact, as it reshapes market practise and affects after-tax net operating income (NOI). This in turn impacts valuations and return on investments and how investment decisions are concluded. The VAT system is complex and there are still grey and uncertain areas, which are yet to be tested and refined upon actual implementation.
Under the new VAT regime, income from property for lease is subject to 11 per cent tax, whereas the previous business tax (BT) was typically levied at 5 per cent. While this is a big leap in the tax rate, VAT is only chargeable on the incremental value add of goods, and is also transferable with input credit and output deduction. Tenants can utilise the input VAT, using the fapiao (invoice) issued by the lessor to offset the output VAT, assuming the tenant is a general taxpayer.
Existing projects, broadly defined as projects with construction permits issued before May 1 this year, can opt for either general or simplified VAT. The latter is a preferential treatment granted for the real estate and construction sectors, applicable only to existing projects. General VAT refers to typical VAT arrangements, whilst simplified VAT means the VAT is levied at 5 per cent of income, at which absolute amount of dues payable would be similar to the previous BT regime. Generally speaking, upon selection of the simplified VAT option, projects are locked up for a certain period (not clearly stated in Circular 36, but reportedly for three years) and VAT credit or deductions are not available.
Stakeholders need to make a toss-up between general VAT and simplified VAT. The reform clearly brings about adjustments to pricing models and asset management plans for industry players, warranting detailed study of tenants’ profiles and the conducting of financial simulation models.
We have observed that most companies with existing income-generating projects opt for simplified VAT, despite foregoing the chance to leverage the potential tax savings, the intended fundamental essence of the reform. This allows these companies a window to ‘wait-and-see’ until they are more comfortable with switching into the new set of rules. From a NOI perspective, landlords will not be worse off, given that the rate is similar to previous BT.
Although the VAT regime enables tenants to utilise the input VAT to offset their output VAT, tenants may also want to tap a share of landlords’ benefits, except for small-scale taxpaying or certain specified category tenants who do not qualify for fapiao. Since its implementation, we have seen cases whereby tenants were only willing to take up a portion of the VAT passed on to them, cases where tenants were willing to pick up the full VAT amount, but at lower rentals. Market rental levels depend on market conditions and bargaining powers between landlords and tenants.
Lease terms and structures may also change. VAT is chargeable during tenants’ fitting out and rent-free periods. Technically, if no rents are collectable during the rent-free period, no fapiao can be issued, and thus VAT cannot be passed on. Lease structures may change to overcome this technical issue, by equalising rent-free periods with lower rents.
There are two key variables in the valuation formula: rent/income and capitalisation rate. The NOI margin would improve in the long run post-VAT reform, as VAT is passed on to tenants, but uplift in bottom line NOI may be constrained owing to pressure on headline revenue. Current visibility of impact to investors’ expectations on return is low with insufficient post-VAT implementation evidence of major investment transactions to analyse. Consensus from our discussions with owners and potential investors in recent months tells us that VAT reform should have a positive impact, however during this transition period, it is logical for valuations to remain neutral or move slightly northward, for those stablised assets subject to simplified VAT as purchasers would not be willing to pay a lot more merely owing to the VAT reforms. However potential impact to pricing of properties subject to a higher 11 per cent general VAT could attract downward adjustments in pricing as investors would still seek for their required return and adjust pricing accordingly. Again, return and pricing will also depend on the sellers’/buyers’ motivation, location, quality of the assets etc.
What’s next? The new rules are set. With piles of new regulations to be learned and clarified, and maybe even lobbying to be carried out regarding ‘on the case’ implementation of the reforms, the market will evolve to achieve equilibrium among stakeholders.
Rita Wong is international director of valuation advisory services department at JLL