China lacks high-quality assets to support reits, say experts

Experts say high borrowing costs and taxes makes such investment vehicles unattractive

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 October, 2014, 4:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 October, 2014, 4:02am

Specialist investment vehicles that could answer the funding prayers of cash-strapped mainland property developers are years away from being viable, despite a flurry of policy initiatives to aid the sector in a bid to protect economic growth.

Industry experts say China lacks the high-quality commercial assets needed to make real estate investment trusts - mooted on the mainland for a decade - sufficiently attractive to investors, especially given high borrowing costs and complex property taxes.

And that undermines the hopes of some in the industry that fresh urgings to widen property financing channels from the People's Bank of China in the past month could bring an end to a decade-long regulatory impasse over their launch.

"China's reits will take a long time," John White, the Hong Kong-based managing director of global real estate fund manager Heitman, told the South China Morning Post.

"Reits are good products for more developed markets," White said, adding that those in emerging markets such as Malaysia and Thailand were more volatile.

Reits are listed entities investing in income-producing real estate assets, the earnings of which are mostly distributed to shareholders. They were pioneered in the US in the 1960s.

The reits market in the Asia-Pacific region is worth more than US$250 billion and is dominated by listings in Singapore, Japan and Australia. India has recently published a reits framework, while China has yet to follow up.

Separate studies have been conducted at length by the central bank and the securities regulator, but progress was slowed by the global financial crisis as Beijing policymakers became wary about liberalising real estate-related investment vehicles - which were largely blamed as the trigger point for the 2008 crisis.

Another complication is that Beijing is worried that a property asset bubble exists and that allowing more money into the sector will only make it bigger, leading to a potentially bigger bust with devastating consequences for the economy.

Real estate investment accounts for about 15 per cent of the mainland's GDP and directly affects more than 40 other sectors of the economy.

A milestone in reit development came in April with the launch of a private reit by China's largest investment bank, Citic Securities. It was sold only to institutional investors and must be traded through the block trade system on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. It is not publicly listed.

Many investors, including UBS, are starting funds in China with an eye to turning them into publicly listed reits when regulators allow.

Qin Hong, a director of the Housing Ministry's policy research centre, told an August forum that although publicly listed reits were still remote in China, the massive construction of commercial property would speed up securitisation efforts.

China had 2.5 million sq metres of office space and 800 million sq metres of retail property under construction last year. And property has been a favourite option and best store of value for mainlanders who have limited investment channels.

"There is strong demand from both buyers and sellers," Qin said. "The key issue is yield, and other challenges also include policies and taxes."

Her centre conducted a joint study into securitisation of commercial property assets this year with Citic GoldStone Fund Management, which manages the Citic reit. Investors who want exposure to mainland office and retail property markets can trade shares of China Resources Land, Soho China, and the upcoming initial public offering of Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties.

Spring Reit and New Century Reit are listed in Hong Kong.