Foreign investors eye senior housing and care market

Updated: 2012-12-01 02:54

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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Opportunities emerge as nation's elderly population set to reach 221 million by 2015

For years foreign investors have tried to jumpstart China's senior housing and care market. So far, none have succeeded.

Social stigma, difficult investment boundaries and an untested market have been the pitfalls for scores of foreign players looking to tap into the business of taking care of seniors.

But as providing quality care for a burgeoning senior population becomes increasingly problematic, foreign investors are jostling for pole position to pioneer China's senior care industry.

With the China National Committee on Aging estimating an elderly population of 221 million by 2015, the potential for private senior healthcare businesses is obviously great.

Leading the latest foreign foray is Cascade Healthcare Services, a joint venture backed by US-based Emeritus and Columbia Pacific Advisors, which opened its first senior care center in Shanghai in October.

"Our conclusion is this is definitely going to be a huge market in China," said Serena Xie, managing director of Cascade Healthcare.

Investing $5 million in remodeling an old hotel in Shanghai's Xuhui district, their 100-bed facility will cater to China's newly minted middle-class, offering full-care residency for 12,000 yuan ($1,926) to 18,900 yuan a month.

Backed by Dan Baty, co-founder of Emeritus and a veteran of the US senior housing market, Cascade's new center is being billed as a prototype in the untested senior healthcare market in a city where residents over 60 account for almost 25 percent of the population.

For Cascade, it is the start of an ambitious plan to open dozens of centers across the country, with plans for another center in Shanghai next year, as well as a $6.75 million joint-venture with Sino-Ocean Land in Beijing.

Cascade is racing to become the first big foreign company to succeed in the sector. But while Cascade may be the first foreign-funded assisted-living center in Shanghai, it is not the first foreign company in China with hopes of establishing a foothold in senior care market.

"There were a small number of attempts to open the Chinese senior care market in the late 1990s, all of which were unsuccessful," said Ben Shobert, managing director of Rubicon Strategy Group, a Seattle-based consulting agency focusing on emerging markets. "This is commonly believed to have been because the market was not yet ready."

As the question of how to ensure proper care for seniors becomes increasingly urgent, it seems the market is now ready for private entrants.

Propelling the market is China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15). For the first time, the nation's social and macro-economic blueprint looked at senior care and easing foreign investment restrictions in the private health sector.

"Central and local governments have never before been so supportive on attracting private investors to the senior care industry," said Qu Qin, a lawyer with Shanghai Co-Effort Law Firm and editor of China Senior Housing and Care Newsletter.

"The government is also planning to issue more regulations on licensing, operator/nurse qualification, elderly protection, and more preferential policies in subsidies, land supply and taxation, among others. In the past, (foreign investors) might not have been even able to find where and how to get approval for opening a facility."

While Cascade may be among the first foreign companies in Shanghai to test the new policies for the senior health sector, it is not alone in its belief that the market is now ready.

Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund in New York, said it wants to invest more than $1 billion in the senior housing market in a domestic conglomerate partnership with Fosun Capital Group.

While the money might be coming in and the regulations may be favorable, foreign investors face daunting cultural barriers.

For hundreds of years, Chinese family tradition has put it upon children to take care of their elderly parents.

The notion of filial piety has carried on in modern times: In 1996 the government set out a policy that required children to take care of their aged parents.

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