Forest City: China’s New Limits on Money Outflows Hit a Would-Be Paradise

NEIL GOUGH and CAO LI New York Times 24 Mar 17;

HONG KONG — China’s intensifying efforts to keep money from leaving the country have cast doubt over big Hollywood deals and other marquee investments.

Now, they are blocking Kitty Zhu from buying her dream home.

The 39-year-old Ms. Zhu, who runs a cosmetic center in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, is one of hundreds of Chinese investors who have bet money on an ambitious but troubled residential project in Malaysia. More than 1,200 miles from China, the $40 billion Forest City housing complex — when completed — will combine lushly green beachfront property with amenities for children and the elderly alike, according to its developer.

But while the developer is Chinese, the payments must be made in Malaysia. Ms. Zhu and other buyers now say they have run into problems making payments on their Forest City apartments.

“I‘ve lost confidence in this project and I don’t want to pay any more,” said Ms. Zhu, who has already paid nearly $44,000 of the $334,000 purchase price. “I told my salesman that I want a refund, but he just avoids me.”

Chinese officials are scrambling to keep money in its borders, and the efforts are hitting big companies and people like Ms. Zhu alike. China spent $1 trillion shoring up its currency since 2014 as big companies and regular investors shifted their money out of the country over worries about slowing economic growth and the prospect of better returns elsewhere. In response, China has put new limits on the ways Chinese can invest and use their credit cards abroad.

The limits now appear to be hitting Chinese efforts to buy real estate globally. In December, China’s currency foreign-exchange regulator said it would take a harder look at how some were buying property, among other investments. On Friday, the overseas arm of UnionPay, the state-owned firm that dominates bank card payment processing in China, said it would prohibit the use of its cards for cross-border property acquisitions.

The moves could hit a large group: The Chinese invested $33 billion in overseas commercial and residential property deals last year, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm. Building homes in overseas markets like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia or New York City and marketing them to investment-minded buyers back home has become a cottage industry for China’s larger property developers, who also promote the strategy as a way to help export China’s industrial overcapacity.

“It is a major problem for some developers that have megaprojects overseas, as it appears they sell, and were intended to sell, mainly to Chinese investors rather than local buyers,” said Nigel Stevenson, an analyst at GMT Research in Hong Kong. “Anecdotally it does seem much harder for Chinese buyers to transfer money offshore to pay for properties,” he added.

Country Garden, the Chinese developer building Forest City in Malaysia, has also been affected. In a Chinese-language statement sent this month to the Reuters news agency and reviewed by The New York Times, Country Garden said it decided to temporarily close its international property sales centers in mainland China for repositioning and upgrading “in order to better meet the existing foreign exchange policies and regulations.”

A Country Garden spokeswoman said the closure of the sales centers was “not a knee-jerk reaction” to the policy and reflected a shift to selling internationally. Speaking to reporters in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Yeung Kwok-keung, the chairman and founder of Country Garden, skirted the question and struck the same point.

”This project is for sale to the entire world,” Mr. Yeung said.

Forest City bills itself as “a dream paradise for all mankind.” A promotional video for the project highlights a special duty-free shopping zone and its proximity to Singapore, and includes video of tropical fish and sea turtles swimming in turquoise waters.

It is also surrounded by freighters. Just to the west of Forest City is Malaysia’s Tanjung Pelepas container port, which is busier than the ports of Los Angeles or New York. Across the water in Singapore lies an industrial district.

The four artificial islands of the Forest City site cover nearly eight square miles. Recent drone video shows a handful of apartment towers under construction, while completed buildings include the spaceshiplike sales showroom and a hotel.

Videos show beaches sprinkled with white sand covering the newly reclaimed shorelines. In front of the showroom, dozens of life-size sculptures of seals perch incongruously in the equatorial heat.

Last year, Rafael Liu and his father were in the showroom of a Country Garden development in China’s eastern Jiangsu province when they learned about the Forest City project in Malaysia.

“We felt that it could be a place for my father to go in the winter,” said Mr. Liu, a 27-year-old banker from Nanjing. His father went on a buying tour last year to Malaysia and liked what he saw. When he came back to China, father and son went to a Country Garden sales office and paid more than 30 percent down on an apartment costing over $130,000.

Since then they have been transferring payments once every three months to a bank account in the southern city of Foshan, where Country Garden is based. But recently, the developer told Mr. Liu he could not make payments in China any more, and instead gave him details for accounts in Malaysia or Hong Kong to use. Mr. Liu balked, worried about violating China’s restrictions on foreign currency transactions.

“I am not paying any more,” he said.

But now he and his father are in limbo. They do not want to forfeit the 30 percent penalty for a refund. And pursuing arbitration could also result in steep legal fees.

Like many other Chinese developers, Country Garden has borrowed money from overseas, which could leave it vulnerable to any weakening in the Chinese currency and to higher interest rates in the United States. For companies, a weaker currency makes paying back debt more expensive. More than half of Country Garden’s $12.8 billion in debt is denominated in American or Hong Kong dollars, though the company said on Wednesday that its overall cost of borrowing had declined.

In domestic Malaysian politics, Forest City has also become something of a political lightning rod.

The country’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has taken to his blog repeatedly to criticize the project — and the administration of current Prime Minister Najib Razak — for allegedly selling land, residency and other benefits to relatively affluent mainland Chinese and bringing little economic benefit to locals in return. Mr. Najib has rejected these criticisms, saying Malaysia is merely taking a page from Dubai’s playbook by building giant projects to attract outside investors.

In a blog entry March 13, Mr. Mahathir said he recently visited Forest City for the first time.

He noted the impressive landscaping, including the large swimming pool and “beautiful” beach. But he renewed his criticism, saying the project is the equivalent of selling off land to foreigners.

“Indeed, Malaysia is very generous,” he wrote. “Anyone can stay here.”

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