British Columbia·Analysis

Will China's tightened capital controls pop the housing bubble?

For years, headlines have screamed warnings that Canada's housing bubble risks bursting, drying up the foreign investment fuelling the market's frenzy. But what if it doesn't?

China imposes further restrictions to control capital flowing out of the country

Will the latest round of rule-tightening on capital flying out of China hurt the Vancouver housing boom? Experts doubt it as housing prices surged to record levels in June. (Shutterstock / Zwiebackesser)

For years, headlines have screamed warnings that Canada's housing bubble risks bursting, drying up the foreign investment fuelling the market's frenzy.

This month, the limit on foreign currency transactions in China was lowered to $9,000 to increase scrutiny on investment money flowing out of the country.

Some fear it could be the catalyst that finally causes Vancouver's bloated real-estate prices to collapse.

But what if it's not? Market analysts say there's something much bigger fuelling the demand.

"International shoppers are 'relatively minor players' but there are a lot of other things going on in the Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle or San Francisco housing market that have continued to propel housing prices upward," said senior economist Aaron Terrazas, of Zillow, a real estate market research company based in Seattle.

While China's new capital controls will hurt the market, it's not enough to deflate prices, because there are too many other factors at play, such as local buyers, low interest rates and other foreign buyers, experts say.

In essence, the world has found us and unless the investment stops being so good, the "bubble" won't burst.

'We’re headed for another housing bust,” says market analyst Tom Luongo, of Seeking Alpha in Florida, who predicts a Canadian house price plummet in Vancouver and Toronto by the end of the year. (Shutterstock / beeboys)

That's because, worldwide, people are hunting for places to invest money and get "safe, stable returns," said Terrazas.

"The reality of the world right now is that Canadian and U.S. real estate are some of the safest high-return investments out there."

China caps capital

But what if buyers from China stop investing?

China has been cracking down on capital outflow for years.

In January, new rules were created to curb the exodus of money overseas that's threatening Chinese economic stability.

Only $65,000 per person is allowed in foreign transactions a year, and there are strict limits on buying investments or real estate.

On July 1, regulators dramatically lowered transaction limits to $9,000 before they must be reported to banking regulators.

Market watchers are divided on the impact these restrictions could have on Vancouver's overheated housing market — which saw condo and detached home prices surge to record levels in June, despite new restrictions and Vancouver's controversial new foreign buyers tax.

Even the Royal Bank of Canada's senior economist Robert Hogue, who warns that rising interest rates and high prices will contain the "pace of price" in 2018, acknowledges that B.C.'s real estate market rebounded faster than expected.

'Ants moving house'

But what will be the impact on sales, now that Chinese buyers will face scrutiny for moving even $9,000?

It will have an effect, but it won't be catastrophic, says Anne Stevenson-Yang, of J. Capital Research Ltd., who has done economic research in Asia for more than 20 years.

She says the new controls are aimed at stopping "ants moving house" a Chinese term for getting a lot of people to make small money transfers to ultimately transfer enough to buy property.

But people find ways around the rules, she says.

The wealthy often already have their money offshore, so they are not affected by new controls.

China's crackdown on capital flowing out of the country, and now even tighter controls as of July, might affect Vancouver's housing market but don't panic, say analysts. (Shutterstock / Alexander Gatsenko)

She says in a country of 1.3 billion people, rules are never hard and fast, and regulators are apt to be overwhelmed.

By September, she says, China will tighten monetary controls even further, requiring every 1,000 RMB or $191 transaction in foreign currency to be reported daily.

"It's just one more dang thing the banks have to do," said Stevenson-Yang.

Homes still selling

Meanwhile, back in Vancouver, the market sizzles — even if the share of foreign buys plunged from 16.5 per cent in June 2016 to four per cent in January 2017, according to provincial statistics.

Despite fears the recent 15-per-cent tax in Vancouver aimed at curbing foreign buyers would cool the market, Metro Vancouver saw $3.27-billion in foreign buyer sales in the past year, according to Real Estate Board of Vancouver figures.

Vancouver has put a foreign buyers tax and an empty homes tax in place to try to cool the market. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

And that's just the foreign buyers that can be counted and who are not obscured by offshore trusts or a student named on the land title, according to NDP MLA David Eby.

A UBC Division of Finance study on this issue predicted that out-of-town buyers are boosting house prices by about 1.1 per cent.

 Analysts say Vancouver is in a unique housing-shortage storm, with high prices also driven by a lack of inventory, increased jobs and high incomes, coupled with a frenzy of house flipping.

Boring pays

So, experts say, despite people's beliefs, buyers from China play a relatively "minor role" overall in B.C.'s housing frenzy.

Canada is a top investment destination because of the country's stability; 150 years of relative political calm has a pay off.

It will take more than restrictions on one country's cash flow to stop the river of demand now that the world has found us.

The newest set of brakes on capital lowers the cap at which transactions must be reported in an attempt to limit foreign housing investment and sales. (Government of China)