Why Are People Taking So Much Money Out of China?
China is experiencing the largest episode of capital flight in history, encouraged by the slowdown in economic activity, the plunge in the stock market and the surprise devaluation of the currency–the Chinese yuan (also called the renminbi) last August. Chinese businesses and consumers are moving money abroad where its value might hold up. Last year, some $700 billion to $1 trillion (U.S.) is estimated to have fled China (see chart below). The dream of many Chinese to have their children educated overseas is another cause of long-term capital outflows. Finally, the flows are driven by a belief that it will only get harder to move money offshore.
Capital controls already exist. Individuals are limited to the equivalent of $50,000 a year, though there are multiple ways to get around the restrictions. The Chinese government is ramping up efforts to stem the flood of money with new rules making it harder for foreign companies in China to repatriate earnings and for investors to move yuan overseas.
In recent days, the yuan has come under renewed downward pressure with mounting expectation of Fed rate hike. The biggest problem for China so far is perception. Capital flight signals a loss of confidence in the government’s ability to run the economy. The perception is made worse in China by the government’s opacity and by the economy’s difficult transition from reliance on big infrastructure and exports to consumer spending.
Much of that Chinese money is moving into housing, not only in Toronto and Vancouver, but also into real estate in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The Chinese are now the number-one foreign purchaser of U.S. residential real estate–surpassing Canadian inflows this year. This is stimulating the housing markets, especially in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Chicago, Miami and Las Vegas are also seeing significant investment.
House prices in Vancouver have surged exponentially with the rising outflow of Chinese capital looking for a home. To a lesser degree, the same is true in Toronto, blowing up a bubble in already overheated housing markets. Can this continue? No one knows, but there are varying opinions whether this is a sustainable force for price appreciation or will China’s efforts to crack down on capital outflow be successful, removing one of the linchpins of the Vancouver and Toronto housing markets.
The answer to that question is not simple. Some believe the Chinese money ball will only grow, bouncing its way around the world. Many believe that China doesn’t need to stop the capital outflow, but just to contain it. Historically, governments cannot effectively control capital outflow. However, everything about China breaks historical norms, and the government is working hard to make foreign exchange transactions more difficult. This poses a significant downside risk to Canada’s strongest housing markets.
In another example, the capital outflow from Russia has been proportionately much larger and some of that capital has also found its way into Toronto housing.
Can The Vancouver and Toronto Housing Boom Last?
The media continue to put the spotlight on the Vancouver and Toronto housing booms and the role played by foreigners to drive up prices. Affordability issues are of great concern and questions continue to arise regarding the sustainability of the housing bubble. Not only are many first-time homebuyers shut out of the housing market, but the supply of listings is held down by the affordability issue as well. Many existing homeowners cannot afford to move up as foreign capital has mainly boosted the luxury housing market. Reportedly, the foreign buyer is far less price sensitive than Canadians, boosting the priced of multi-million dollar homes.
The Canadian government and regulatory response to this foreign inflow of money is evolving. The media have recently highlighted the potential for money laundering and the lax enforcement of anti-money laundering initiatives in the real estate sector. But it appears that most of the Chinese purchase of Canadian housing is not for money laundering purposes, meaning garnered through illegal activity or to support terrorism. Moreover, Canadian real estate players are not responsible for enforcing Chinese law. According to a spokesman for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department, banks are required to “conduct enhanced due diligence on foreign correspondent accounts.”
Meanwhile, Chinese officials have intensified a crackdown on what are known in China as underground banks, which Chinese nationals often use to shift money in and out of the country. Those money-transfer agents, however, remain rampant despite repeated enforcement efforts, according to the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. While determined individuals can always find a way to move money, including untraceable bitcoin transactions, a slowdown in the volume of Chinese capital moving into Canadian housing is a meaningful risk factor for the hottest markets in Canada.