Chinese investment in US real estate: 'new normal'

Updated: 2015-01-26 10:10

By NIU YUE in New York(China Daily USA)

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As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reminds the world of the "new normal" in China's macroeconomy in Davos, another new normal is forming among China's major real estate developers - go to the United States.

"In the past, they were investing in China only, but in 2014, 22 of our 42 vice-chairperson enterprises are investing in the US or have projects finished," said Zhong Bin, secretary-general of the China Real Estate Chamber of Commerce, whose members account for around $650 billion of the $1.2 trillion of China's total real estate sales last year.

"We are looking at two countries now," he said. "We want Chinese capital to be properly allocated in the US, and we want to introduce American capital, experience and technology for Chinese [real estate] development," he said.

The trend was first noticedby Xinyuan Real Estate Co, which started the first major US residential development project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, in late 2012, as fears about a Chinese economic slowdown have already emerged. Other major developers Vanke and Greenland joined the trend.

Experts believe that there will be more Chinese money coming because"China's real estate market is getting cold, extraordinarily cold," said Daniel Sun, CEO of Clear River Capital LLC, a New York-based real estate investment and asset management company. "Now almost everybody believes the golden time is gone."

China's real estate sales dropped 6.3 percent last year, compared with a 26.3 percent increase in 2013, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics. China's GDP growth expanded only 7.4 percent last year, the slowest since 1991.

Meanwhile, the US posed a more positive outlook. The GDP growth is expected to be 2.9 percent, said theInternational Monetary Fund. The unemployment rate also fell steadily, to 5.9 percent in the third quarter of 2014 from the peak of the financial crisis.

"So, it is declining on one side but rising on the other," said Sun, quoting ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius. "It's more important to seize the opportunity than have wisdom, just like it's more important to know the best time to plant seeds than have good tools."

Apart from Chinese developers' desire for profitability, America's EB-5 programs, which offer green cards to qualified foreign investors, also are bringing Chinese capital into the real estate market.

"There are many real estate-developing projects in EB-5 projects," said Jan Kot, China general manager of Juwai, a website that helps Chinese purchase real estate overseas. "Many people kill two birds with one stone by investing in these EB-5 real estate projects."

Investors from the Chinese mainland received 8,308 EB-5 visas in 2014, far more than South Koreans' 162, which was second on the list. Under the EB-5 program, foreigners must invest at least $500,000 and create or preserve 10 jobs in exchange for green-card eligibility.

Chinese capital also creates new opportunities for US developers, as Chinese developers recruit local talent or find local partners in exploring the market.China's Greenland purchased a 70 percent stake in Forest City Ratner, which has been developing Atlantic Yards in New York, but has been criticized for its slow pace. Vanke has partnered with Tishman Speyer Properties in San Francisco.

In New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities, where Chinese developers cluster, "most deals and projects come to light and will be acquired very quickly," said Charles Kalocsay, partner of EY Transaction Real Estate. "Without local knowledge or expertise, it is very difficult to underwrite the deals."

The scene, however, reminded Chien ChungPei, partner of Pei Partnership Architects, of the investment spree by Japanese starting in the 1980s.

"Japanese money came in; they bought Rockefeller Center; they bought Pebble Beach in California; and they lost all their money," said Pei. "They bought them high, and then [the real estate] went down. There is a cycle in the United States … and Japanese didn't recognize that."

Kalocsay also said that international capital has pushed land and construction costs up and threatened to undermine developers' margin. Although developers could still charge higher prices due to higher costs, "we are finally getting to the point where you just can't charge that much more for the units. There has to be a ceiling there," he said, suggesting Chinese developers look at cities such as Chicago and Boston.

Lu Huiquan in New York contributed to this report.