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China real estate bubble hits Manhattan

chna-manhattanFosun International Ltd., a Chinese conglomerate that invests in everything from steel to pharmaceuticals to Club Med, has agreed to buy the office tower at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza from JPMorgan Chase & Co. for a whopping $750 million. This isn’t an isolated incident.

Zhang Xin, a billionaire property developer who grew rich building Beijing’s central business district, recently bought about 20 percent of the General Motors building for $680 million. And a Chinese state-owned group has agreed to buy a 70 percent stake in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards development for an undisclosed sum.

This time may be different, but I can’t help but be reminded of other recent periods when wealthy foreigners splurged on premiere U.S. real estate. It was usually a sign of overheated capital markets in their home countries.

Gulf Arabs bought the Chrysler Building and a sizable stake in the GM Building just as oil prices were peaking in 2008. Those purchases might actually have been decent hedges against the subsequent decline in oil prices. (Brent crude is still trading at a 25 percent discount to its peak price from that summer.)

But the demand for high-price prestige properties also reflects the exuberance that later forced Dubai to take a $10 billion bailout from Abu Dhabi less than 18 months later to avoid defaulting on the debts of a state-backed investment company.

More famously — and far more disastrously — Japanese investors wasted tens of billions of dollars buying U.S. real estate in the late 1980s. The biggest fiasco was probably Mitsubishi’s ill-timed purchase of Rockefeller Center right at the top of the Manhattan office market, although the Pebble Beach golf resort is a strong runner-up for the size of the losses it inflicted on Japanese investors. Like the Arabs flush with oil money, the Japanese ended up having more capital to invest than good places to put it. Making matters worse, their spending pushed up the prices of every property they coveted far above any fundamental value.

China could be experiencing a similar phenomenon. Private borrowing has exploded relative to income since the global financial crisis. As with Japan in the 1980s, huge conglomerates with preferential access to bank credit have broken out of their traditional business lines to invest in property and lend to dodgy borrowers. Daniel Altman at Big Think wonders if the purchases of expensive prestige property in the U.S. are simply the next logical step as China’s excess supply of capital struggles to find good returns. Some have also suggested that Chinese are buying real estate in Western countries to smuggle their savings out of the country.

Either way, the recent buying wave could signal trouble ahead in the world’s second-largest economy.-Bloomberg