Archive for May, 2016
China’s housing market is in a bubble, in my opinion, for it seems to display some of the same excesses and questionable behavior that the United States had in real estate shortly before the big subprime mortgage crash in 2007. We have a flood of newly created cash flowing into the market at low interest rates for easy loans. We find unusual business models popping up to exploit the cheap credit and drive up housing prices and housing demand. And we will see rapid changes occur as the bubble pops in some way.
Easy credit from the banks of China and abundant new cash from China’s equivalent of “quantitative easing” have been used in an attempt to stimulate the markets, just as has been done with little success in the U.S., Japan, the European Union and Zimbabwe (before their cataclysmic crash with hyperinflation and economic chaos). Initially much of the new money being created was being used to drive the Chinese stock market. As that bubble popped, rich Chinese looked again to real estate as the traditional safe way to make lots of money. In popular cities, home prices have shot up. In Shenzhen, housing prices show a 57% increase over last year. That’s a ridiculous rate showing something is wrong.
Owners of apartments until recently were not too concerned about rent since they real money were making was coming from rapidly appreciating property values in cities like Shanghai. But with fear that recent rises were no longer going to be sustainable, rental prices are now getting more emphasis. This appears to be driven in part by the very large-scale actions of a giant force, the real estate company Lianjia (United Homes), according to a friend of ours who is a real estate agent. Lianjia has managed to obtained huge capital reserves that it has used to buy up many former competitors, giving them a stranglehold on the real estate market. They are also using large amounts of capital to make loans to customers who otherwise might not be able to afford the down payment of a new property. Further, they are actively working with property owners to push for significantly higher rental values. This increases their commissions and also make landlords happy.
In spite of China’s slowing economy, many renters are reporting significant jumps in rent this year. Our landlord, for example, wanted to increase our rent by 33%. Since we take good care of the place and don’t make many demands, though negotiation, she was willing to sacrifice to help us by just asking for a 24% raise in rent instead. But she has agents from Lianjia calling her and saying she could be getting 33% or even 40% more. This seems to be happening all over the city.
In looking for new, more affordable apartments, my wife found that when she went to the nearby Lianjia office and asked for places with a price similar to what we have been paying the past year, they said it wasn’t possible and that we would have to pay a lot more to get a place with the features we now have. When we went to one of the increasingly hard-to-find non-Lianjia dealers, we learned that there certainly were places in our price range that could meet our needs. While my wife and a non-Lianjia agent were looking at one apartment priced at 14,000 RMB, a Lianjia agent came to the same place with a Chinese girl who was looking to rent. She liked the place and asked how much it was. My wife heard the Lianjia agent say it was listed at 18,000, a full 4,000 RMB above the actual asking price. The girl was shocked and wondered how it could be so expensive. She turned to the agent my wife was with and asked what price he had been told. Not wanting to make another agent lose face, our agents just nodded his head and said it was 18,000. But this apparently was Lianjia’s attempt to drive up the price, deceiving a customer. Ugly.
By offering easy loans to customers who might not otherwise be able to get one, and by collaborating with landlords to drive prices up, the rental market in Shanghai has been booming at a crazy pace, the kind of pace that looks like a classic bubble. The housing bubble is already popping in Hong Kong, with a significant drop now in housing prices since the Sept. 2015 peak, said to currently be in “free fall.” That cold front may soon sweep northward to cities like Shanghai.
In bubble economies, it’s hard to tell precisely when the insanity will stop. With abundant injections of cash and other policy actions, the government could keep driving up prices for a while, but eventually (what, two more months? maybe six? a year?) economic reality has to kick in, and when it does, it can be painful and sudden. The bigger the steps taken to keep the bubble going, the worse the pain will be and the longer the correction will take.
When cheap mortgages to unqualified buyers begin to fail and threaten the banks, we could be in for a repeat of the subprime mortgage crisis the US faced a few years ago. When property owners begin to see that real estate values can drop significantly, they may look to the ultimate way of preserving capital in risky times: precious metals, particularly gold and silver. A dramatic pop of any kind in China could send shock waves throughout the world.
This is a good time to be prepared. Get out of debt. Have cash on hand to keep you going for two or three months in case there is a run on the banks (the available currency in the US is a tiny fraction of the vast amount of digital money that has been created, and if banks fail or are hacked, turning those digits into something you can spend may be a challenge that faces many delays, not to mention massive threats of hacking. Physical cash on hand may be an important part of your survival kit. Food and other supplies, and some gold and silver coins or bullion, may be a good idea.
The great challenge in innovation is not coming up with a discovery or great invention. The challenge is in making it stick, in nurturing it and growing it so that it spreads and changes the world. Numerous antibodies and barriers are ready to snuff out every great idea, even when it offers a solution that the world is clamoring for. The story of scurvy in the British Navy, as shared in Chapter 10 of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, illustrates this principle.
Scurvy cost the lives of thousands of sailors and soldiers around the world for centuries. For the British Navy, that disease was one of the greatest challenges it faced. On long voyages, 30% or more of the crew might die from scurvy. Through confusion and error among England’s educated elite regarding scurvy, misinformation about its cause and its cure would persist into the 20th century. However, there was credible medical information in the early 1600s pointing to citrus fruits as a key aid in preventing and curing the disease. [See Stephen R. Bown, SCURVY: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).]
Physicians on land and at sea would later provide evidence in the mid-1700s that citrus or other fresh fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of scurvy, but this knowledge was not only ignored or resisted by those in the Navy, it was resisted by the mainstream European medical community who perpetrated a form of “strategy fatigue” by making a general understanding of the nature of disease their primary quest, being uninterested in “merely empirical” work aimed at curing a given disease. For example, the work in the 1730s of physician John Bachstrom in Holland pointing to fresh fruits and vegetables as the decisive cure for scurvy was dismissed by the medical community of his day, for he was “a mere empirick” in the eyes of his elite peers. [Kenneth J. Carpenter, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 44-45.]
The adoption of the innovation of citrus fruit in treating scurvy took more than compelling evidence. It took someone with powerful connections to champion the innovation. This man was the prominent Scottish physician, Sir Gilbert Blane, who was only 4 years old when a detailed study on the cure for scurvy was published by James Lind in 1753 – only to be ignored for decades. (To be accurate, the information from Lind and others was obscured by terrible confusion about physiology and disease, and continued to point to the dangers of various “airs” and climatic factors as key contributors to scurvy, obscuring the fact that it was a nutritional deficiency.) [See James Lind, A Treatise of the Scurvy. in Three Parts. Containing an Inquiry Into the Nature, Causes and Cure, of that Disease. Together with a Critical and Chronological View of What Has Been Published on the Subject, Edinburgh: Printed by Sands, Murray and Cochran for A Kincaid and A Donaldson. Portions of the original reproduced online by the James Lind Library. Also see Carpenter, op. cit., pp. 51-52.]
In London, Blane became the private physician to Lord Rodney and sailed with him to the West Indies in 1779. Blane’s efforts to keep sailors healthy were increasingly successful, and through his connections to Rodney and others naval leaders, Blane was able to give lectures to senior leaders and gain support for improved practices across the entire navy. Drawing upon past work and a further demonstration of his own, he would introduce compelling evidence to naval leaders that lime juice prevented scurvy, leading the Navy to adopt lime juice in its global operations beginning in 1795. [David Nash Ford, “Biographies: Sir Gilbert Blane (1749-1834),” Royal Berkshire History (Finchampstead, UK: Nash Ford Publishing, 2005).] For nearly two centuries, the British Navy had been closed to a safe, inexpensive innovation from outsiders that solved what may have been its most vexing and costly problem. The citrus “sales pitch” fell on deaf ears until someone with the right connections to senior management could deliver it. It’s a tragic lesson of the dangers of closed innovation, of organizational rigidity, of devaluing the work of innovators, of listening to the wrong voices, of “not invented here,” and the importance of delivering the story of an innovation to the right people, through those who have the right contacts. It doesn’t need to be this way, but it often is. Thousands of needless deaths over centuries: welcome to the fruits of innovation fatigue.
Incidentally, innovation-related lessons from scurvy continued long after 1795. Though citrus juice was adopted in the British Navy, the nature of the disease and the reason for the cure were still unknowns. Without careful efforts to preserve knowledge and best practices, erosion can quickly occur. Thus when the Royal Navy undertook arctic expeditions in the 19th century, the leaders took with them a belief that good hygiene, good morale, and regular exercise prevented scurvy. Not surprisingly, scurvy was a recurring problem in these voyages. In the 20th century, when Robert Scott trekked into the Antarctic, tainted canned food was believed to be a cause of scurvy. The connection between vitamin C and scurvy was not discovered until 1932. Likewise, we have seen many organizations lose best practices, healthy processes, and even technical capabilities and knowledge when efforts weren’t taken to preserve and pass on what they had.
(The above is based on an section of Conquering Innovation Fatigue, Chapter 10.)