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1990 Economist Article on Japanese Real Estate

1990 Economist Article on Japanese Real Estate

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Published by benclaremon
This is an article in the Economist in 1990 that presents the case that the incredibly overvalued Japanese real estate market was due for a nasty fall despite many arguments to the contrary.
This is an article in the Economist in 1990 that presents the case that the incredibly overvalued Japanese real estate market was due for a nasty fall despite many arguments to the contrary.

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Published by: benclaremon on Jul 30, 2009
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02/10/2011

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Tokyo's property and the emperor's clothes
Dateline: TOKYOAS JAPAN'S interest rates have soared this year, so the country's stockmarkets have slumped — followingthis week's tumble, by two-fifths so far this year. Do people now expect a property slump in Tokyo? Oddly,they do not. Like London two years ago and California today, Tokyo's leap of faith is that property valueswill, at worst, stand still for a few years before the next boom begins.That faith is reinforced by pat reasoning. It is that, because of Tokyo's tight zoning and building regulations,there will always be a land "shortage" in Tokyo. These shortages have led to such anomalies as there being89,000 acres of farmland and 56,000 acres of vacant land in the greater Tokyo area, which in a free marketcould be sold for billions of dollars. It is true that these anomalies would disappear in any sensible country,and take a longer time to fade in Japan. But the theory that they will hold up Tokyo property prices forever is bunkum.These artificial "shortages" were there before prices trebled in Tokyo in 1986-89, and will presumably bethere after they halve or worse. Property prices will fall for two reasons: first, because they are nowuneconomically high; and, second, because they will succumb to the same liquidity shortage that hasalready caused the Tokyo stockmarket's collapse this year.The liquidity shortage is shown by rising interest rates and increasing rationing of credit. It was ultra-lowinterest rates and easy access to borrowed money that fuelled Japan's property binge in the late 1980s, whenland prices soared to record levels relative to rents.After a four-year boom, land should now return to more traditional valuations (ie, drastically lower ones).The question is how uncomfortable — or even fatal-this will prove for parts of the banking system as wellas for over-borrowed developers. Many of these borrowed heavily against land both to punt on shares andto buy more property. Land has not so much been traded in Japan as used as a source of instant credit.Japan's land boom encouraged banks to lend money wildly to property developers in the 1980s. They wereshort of other people to lend to, as corporate borrowers deserted banks for the securities market. Developersassumed that ever-rising land values would cover the (now rising) cost of borrowing. The resultingexposures are huge.Japan's 12 big commercial (known as city) banks plunged in relatively late. Yet in the year to March 311990 their outstanding loans backed by property rose by 22%, to ¥57.3 trillion ($365 billion). This amountsto 23% of city banks' total loans, up from 16% five years ago. Some well-known banks have even higher ratios. At end-March Sumitomo Bank had 26% of its total loans of ¥29.9 trillion (and 40.5% of its domesticloans) out to Japanese property.The country's seven trust banks have big exposures to land, because of their historically close relations with property companies, and their role as the only banks licensed to be estate agents. Most of the more than 150regional banks have been equally keen on lending against the security of land. Two extreme examples areKeiyo Bank and Musashino Bank, which at the end of March 1989 had 49% and 45% of their total loansout to property. They had enthusiastically fanned the flames of a housing boom in Tokyo's outer suburbs.The regulators' worst worries are about the hundreds of shinkin banks, Japan's version of America's creditunions. At the end of March these had total assets of ¥88 trillion. Most shinkin are small institutions withonly a handful of branches, and have had to cope with deregulated interest rates. Like America's thrifts,they felt forced to pursue higher-margin and hence riskier business. For small-town banks, this meantlending to property spivs.Japan's bureaucrats at the central bank and the finance ministry still expect lenders to adhere to theJapanese banking practice of lending against only about 70% of a piece of land's hard-to-measure marketvalue. But the 1980s saw a rash of lending for second mortgages and the like, and such extra lending wentunchecked. The Bank of Japan and the finance ministry have only 108 bank examiners between them.
 
The bureaucrats at the finance ministry and the central bank are now worried sick about the risk to thefinancial system. They would love to push land prices down gently without bursting the bubble. As they donot want to go to war against land with dramatic rises in interest rates, they resorted last spring to jaw-jaw.They told all the banks that the growth in their loans to the property industry should not exceed the increasein their total loan book. All banks must also now file quarterly data about their lending to non-bank financial institutions such as leasing and consumer-finance companies, neither of which is regulated by thefinance ministry. Such companies have been heavy borrowers from banks to lend on to propertyspeculators. Some banks are now scared of lending against land, but even more are terrified of collapsing if they stop doing so.The Tokyo stockmarket has fewer such inhibitions. So far this year the index of property shares has fallen by 47%. The railway sector has slumped by an even bigger 51%. It consists of companies valued chiefly bytheir "latent assets" (for which, read land) not by the custom on their trains.Though the stockmarket is shouting a warning, the official benchmark for land prices still refuses to reflectit. This is the National Land Agency's biannual survey, an indicator notorious for lagging behind events.For 1989 it showed a year-on-year rise in land prices of 17%. The usual leaks say that the figure for year-on-year growth to June 30th will again be in double digits. That strengthens the case of those central bankers that want still tighter money.There are signs, though, that the property market is cooling. The key central-Tokyo office market is slowing(see box). And I there is a record 11m square feet of office I space under construction in the central fivewards of Tokyo.In the residential market the price of second-hand condominiums declined in the three months to May.Condominium developers expect worse to come. They are rushing to complete projects before the squeezehurts, and while prices still remain silly. At the end of 1989 the average new condominium in central Tokyocost ¥110.5m, or 17 times the national average annual salary. In Osaka the figure was ¥58.2m, or nine timesthe national average. Rising mortgage rates are making those prices ever less affordable.An analysis by Mr Tom Hill, of Warburg Securities in Tokyo, suggests that Japanese land prices have a lotfurther to fall than the consensus expects. Mr Hill argues that Japan's strict rent-control laws for tenantsmean that rents increase at a predictable 4.5% a year. As a result, the stockmarket valuation of the propertysector has generally tracked long-term interest rates. Since institutional investors own property for itsincome rather than for its potential resale value, their concern is how much they can earn compared withthe guaranteed yield on long-term government bonds.During the 1980s the gap between bond yields and central Tokyo office yields swung between 2.4 and 3.2 percentage points in bonds' favour. With Japanese bond yields now over 8%, that spread has widened to atleast five percentage points. Mr Hill's model suggests that, if the gap were to narrow by two percentage points during the next two years, capital values would fall by 20% assuming rents continued to rise. No rentrises — because of glutted markets — and the fall would become 40%.Can the centre hold?THE way financial institutions are drifting back into Tokyo's downtown business district shows how softthe property market in Japan could become. Until a year ago, property agents in the fashionable central areaof Marunouchi and Otemachi were contemptuously turning clients away. Even after four years of huge price rises in 1985-89, the demand for office space in central Tokyo was still more than the market couldsupply. Now the young men in sharp suits have all too many empty offices to show their clients.During the 1980s, as foreign brokerages, banks and other financial firms rushed to Tokyo to join thegreatest bull market of all time, long waiting lists and exorbitant rents for office accommodation sentdisappointed newcomers scurrying to the inner suburbs. Mighty Salomon Brothers set up shop in Ark Hills,a business and entertainment complex squeezed between the Roppongi and Akasaka watering holes.American Express went six miles to Ogikubo, on the western fringes of Tokyo, and built a 17-storey office block for itself.

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