China’s property market curbs fail to deter investors

Commercial and residential buildings stand in Beijing February 8, 2014. Chinese policymakers must ensure the property market, which has started to show signs of cooling, does not become a source of social and financial instability, the official China Daily said in an editorial published on Wednesday. Picture taken February 8, 2014.   REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA - Tags: REAL ESTATE BUSINESS POLITICS)



The world’s hottest property stocks are to be found in China as tougher measures to cool real estate prices fail to deter investors. Chinese companies account for nine of the 10 best performers this year on the Bloomberg World Real Estate Index. Among members of the MSCI China Index, Country Garden Holdings Co., Sunac China Holdings Ltd. and China Evergrande Group are the standout winners with gains of more than 70 percent, five times the pace of the benchmark measure.
Soaring sales and improving profits go some way to explaining a surprise rally that has pushed the shares into overbought levels, lifted valuations and forced short sellers to retreat. While Credit Suisse Group AG says now’s the time to take profit, BNP Paribas SA — one of only two brokerages to recommend buying all three stocks at the start of the year — says gains can continue, albeit more narrowly.
“Investors will be more selective in buying the stocks this year,” said Wee Liat Lee, an analyst at BNP in Hong Kong. “Large developers will gain market share from the smaller players. You need to be a very big developer with diversified exposure across different cities in China to thrive amid tougher curbs.”
Country Garden, Sunac and Evergrande trade at least 28 percent above analysts’ average target price, though valuations remain below the multiple for the global real estate gauge. Lee said clients are now more receptive, after a global marketing tour in January was met with hours of debate and investors “trashing” his bullish takes on Country Garden and Sunac in particular.
“You can’t ignore them after this rally,” Lee said. Home prices rose last month in 62 out of 70 tracked by the government, the most since October, data Tuesday showed. New home sales by value increased 18 percent to 1 trillion yuan ($145 billion) last month from a year earlier. Evergrande jumped 4.1 percent, the biggest advance on MSCI’s China gauge, while Sunac slid 2.9 percent and Country Garden lost 1 percent.
The firms have characterized themselves with debt-fueled expansion, aggressive appetite for land banks and a focus on size over profitability. Sunac was among the country’s most active real estate buyers last year, lifting its total debt-to-equity ratio to the highest since the global financial crisis. Evergrande is China’s most indebted property developer, although it’s unveiled measures to reduce its net gearing and cut financing costs.
Still, sales for companies on the MSCI China Real Estate Index are forecast to soar 39 percent this year on average, while earnings will probably grow 9.2 percent. China’s listed developers are witnessing the first drop in debt leverage since the 2008 global financial crisis.
“Earnings for these three firms are indeed so-so,” said CIMB Securities Ltd. Hong Kong-based analyst Raymond Cheng. “But some investors would prefer rapidly-growing sales than profits only. Their soaring contracted sales in past year could also lock in some profits this year or next year.”
Riding China’s property-market boom last year, contracted sales for Evergrande and Country Garden soared 82 percent and 120 percent respectively, making them the nation’s top and third largest by that measure. Sunac’s sales more than doubled to 150 billion yuan ($22 billion). Those gains outpaced the 36 percent growth for new-home sales nationwide.
Burned by the rally, bearish speculators have been trimming their bets. Short interest on Evergrande dropped to 11 percent of free float, compared to last year’s high of 30 percent, according to data compiled by IHS Markit Ltd. and Bloomberg. For Country Garden it’s just 3.7 percent, or half what it was in February.
Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analysts still recommend shorting Sunac, citing “stretched” valuations, declining profitability and high exposure to the bigger cities with buying restrictions, according to a note this month. Credit Suisse also has a word of caution on the sector, predicting revenues will rise at a slower pace in the second quarter.
Most first- and second-tier cities imposed home-buying curbs in the past six months, while top policy makers reiterated a pledge to limit property speculation at this year’s National People’s Congress.

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