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The China Risk You May Have Forgotten About

TO GO WITH Lifestyle-cities-China-Beijing-migration by Neil CONNOR This picture taken on January 14, 2014 shows a woman walking through a corridor beneath a building in Beijing. About 281,000 people live underground in Beijing according to city authorities, although reports say closer to one million inhabit the capital's basements, former air raid shelters and other subterranean dwellings. AFP PHOTO / WANG ZHAO WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

China's shadow-banking problems may have grabbed headlines, but its long-bubbling property sector continues to pose risks to the economy, analysts said.

The property market is the biggest concern about China right now, Adrian Mowat, chief Asian and emerging market equity strategist at JPMorgan, told CNBC.

"We do have a habit of talking about irrational exuberance about three years too early. And people have sort of taken their eye off that particular bubble," he said.

Home prices in many Chinese cities have continued to set records over the past year despite the government's four-year long campaign to cool the market. Some local governments were forced into a fresh round of curbs in November, with measures including raising minimum down payments for second homes and promising to supply more land for building residential properties.

The size of the rises from a year earlier are certainly large: In December, average new home prices in 70 major cities on the mainland rose 9.9 percent from a year ago, the 12th consecutive annual rise and the same as the previous month's record gain, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

Mowat isn't alone in considering the property sector a key risk. Credit Agricole is concerned that an excessive price correction could threaten the country's growth prospects.

"It takes only 3.5 years of average annual disposable income to buy a home in the U.S., compared to as much as 22.5 years of urban disposable income in China," Credit Agricole said in a note.

"This makes inaccessibility of housing a big social issue and threatens a sharp correction, which – given that residential construction accounts for about 10 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) – poses a large risk to growth," it said.

The strong rises in property prices and sales continued in January even as China moved to rein in credit growth, UOB KayHian said in a note last week. It noted that developers spent around 248 billion in January to replenish their landbanks, up around 37 percent from the monthly average in 2013.

Those purchases are spurring concerns both that developers are taking on more debt even as monetary policy is tightening and that more projects will come up for sale this year, potentially leading to oversupply if the market slows, UOB KayHian said.

"Banks' tightened lending policy and various cities' cooling measures have not dampened buyers' sentiment," UOB KayHian said, noting the average selling prices for homes continued to rise in January, up 0.63 percent from December, according to data from Chinese real-estate internet portal Soufun. "Our concern is that the herd mentality has prompted buyers to push forward their home purchase, meaning that demand could fall sharply when sentiment turns."

To be sure, concern over the property market isn't universal, with some believing the sector can continue to grow.

"China property is still a fast-growth sector," Deutsche Bank said in a note last week.


"We see the current high sales volume as sustainable in the long term, with little risk of a substantial price bubble," it said. "The policy/reform focus of the new leadership is highly supportive of structural long-term end-user demand in the China property market."

The bank estimates the urbanization focus could spur demand for 10 million residential units a year through 2030.

©2014 CNBC LLC. All Rights Reserved. Leslie Shaffer.

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