[SINGAPORE] As growth worries and trade war jitters threaten to spoil any rebound for emerging markets in 2019, property markets are shaping up as a critical element to monitor for further signs of gloom.
Some developing economies from Thailand to Dubai and Brazil are facing double-digit real estate sales declines on the back of weakening domestic growth. Developed countries already have shown some of the pain - including Australia, the UK, Switzerland and Singapore - and made all the more worrisome as borrowing costs remain relatively low.
"There are different factors driving the various markets; real estate tends to be to a large extent a localised market," said Todd Schubert, head of fixed-income research at Bank of Singapore Ltd.
"However, the one over-riding theme is decelerating economic growth momentum, which is continuing to be a headwind for all markets and preventing a recovery in markets, such as Dubai, which have faced multi-year downturns."
The weakness isn't universal with China's real estate market showing signs of green shoots again, while low rates have supported Poland's real-estate market.
Here's how some emerging-economy property markets are shaping up.
New-home price growth in China snapped a four-month weakening streak, one of the first official signs there may be a widespread recovery in the nation's housing market. The recovery has been more evident in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, where local governments have increasingly sought to use so-called stealth easing to offset reduced support from shanty-town renovation projects.
The Bank of Thailand issued plans in October to impose stricter mortgage-lending rules in 2019 as the officials saw a frothy housing market ahead. That's already kept residential development plans in check, with an increasingly gloomy global growth picture weighing now also. Colliers International said in a fourth-quarter report that it sees new condominiums falling by 24 per cent this year as unsold properties pile up, while Bloomberg Economics sees Chinese investor interest keeping a floor under demand.
The property market in South-east Asia's biggest economy is in a funk, with residential property sales contracting 5.78 per cent in the fourth quarter compared to the previous three months, according to central bank data. Fitch Ratings has cited rising interest rates, currency volatility, weak commodity prices and looming elections as weights on first-half demand. In an April 24 report, Fitch Ratings said that post-election uncertainty would likely have "minimal impact in the medium term on infrastructure execution and contractors' profitability," with the 2019 budget prioritising such development.
India's top seven cities recorded 12 per cent increase in home sales and 27 per cent jump in residential launches during the first quarter, according to Anarock Property Consultants. While the sector was hit by a liquidity crisis late last year, government measures including a reduction in GST and central bank interest-rate cuts boosted sales and launches in the March quarter. Investor confidence was rocked last year by a series of defaults at IL&FS Group, which pushed up costs for borrowers, including builders looking to refinance debt that fueled a construction boom.
An oil-price slump, fiscal austerity in Saudi Arabia and a strong dollar have driven away potential buyers in Dubai. The government's Land Department has been focusing on promoting Dubai's real estate to investors abroad, mostly in the US, UK, China, India and Russia, and last year announced a long-term visa program meant to help boost property demand. Residential property prices in Dubai are set to decline by less than 10 per cent this year, after sliding about 25 per cent from the 2014 peak, said Craig Plumb, the head of Middle East research at broker Jones Lang LaSalle.
Record-low unemployment and fast wage gains, together with record-low interest rates, also spur demand for houses, with sales at a record high in Poland last year. That's bringing residential property investment funds to a roaring market that used to be mostly retail-oriented. Poland's relatively low debt and modest fiscal deficit are giving the government room to support the economy, allowing for real estate there to be especially attractive against its neighbours, said Sebastian Zilles, a London-based fund manager at Pacific Investment Management Co.
Russia's residential construction is on a three-year losing streak, and regulations from July 1 that will require builders to keep money earned from pre-sales of apartments in escrow add one more hurdle. The sector has stalled despite a boom in the mortgage market, which grew by nearly half in 2018 as rates fell to historic lows. While the state mortgage development institution DOM.RF forecasts continued lending growth and sees no signs of a bubble, a low base means that housing loans won't save developers from their prolonged slump.
Turkey's property market, hit by rising borrowing costs following the August currency crash, is one of the biggest losers of EMEA region in 2018. Home prices rose 7.6 per cent in the year through January, the slowest annual increase in central bank data back to 2011. When adjusted for inflation, home prices fell by over 10 per cent. Even amid the real decline in home prices, sales during the first two months of the year dropped by one-fifth from a year earlier, according to official data released by Turkstat.
South Africa's mortgage market looks to have started 2019 on very weak footing, with the value of new mortgage loans having plunged in the third quarter from a year earlier, according to central bank data. Growth is likely to remain weak until at least after the 2019 elections amid souring business and consumer sentiment and concerns over policy direction, including on land expropriation without compensation.
For Brazil, the fresh government of President Jair Bolsonaro hasn't yet been able to deliver on high hopes for a real-estate turnaround. Housing prices in Sao Paulo, the most-populous state, grew at an annual pace of 2 per cent in February, compared with less than 1 per cent a year ago, according to an index by FipeZap. That's still far below the double-digit growth levels seen in 2014 before the economy went into recession.
Mexico's property sector has remained relatively resilient amid the uncertainty generated by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's new administration. Construction is signalling an earlier-than-expected recovery, according to BBVA research. Interest in cheap Mexican real estate remains strong, and home prices across the country rose over the course of last year, according to the most recent available data from Mexico's Federal Mortgage Company.