By Tom Westbrook and Stella Qiu
SINGAPORE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – The end of China’s strict COVID-19 border controls is prompting pent-up cash to begin flowing abroad, real estate agents and property data from Australia to Singapore suggest.
Chinese demand is helping boost Singapore property prices, Chinese students are snapping up apartments in Sydney and Melbourne, and agents say Chinese interest is ticking up in Thailand.
Data on the early trickle of outflows is scarce, but the signs suggest new demand to get capital out of China, where real estate confidence is fragile and the government’s tax rules and criticism of wealth accumulation make investing abroad more attractive.
“Enquiries from regional Asia property investors have doubled since the borders opened, especially from the Chinese,” said Ian Chen, founder and chief executive of Jalin Realty, which operates in China, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.
“Most of the investors who are buying now are those who just need to get some money out. We are not seeing a big wave, but definitely there is interest and a lot of enquiries – especially from students who are coming back to Australia.”
Rich and middle-class Chinese have long sought to move some wealth abroad to diversify their investments and keep some assets beyond the reach of authorities, just in case.
Early signs point to much smaller flows than in previous episodes, such as one in 2016 that triggered tighter controls on moving money from China. But they indicate that in the wake of the pandemic, Chinese families are looking to relocate assets, and even themselves, overseas.
The restrictions on moving money abroad will likely prevent a flood of outflows or a big impact on the world’s second-biggest economy, but the trend indicates some lack of confidence and weighs on the currency, which has struggled to advance as China relaxed its COVID rules.
Australia’s property data is not broken down by nationality, but agents say recent foreign interest has helped stabilise prices and push clearance rates in Sydney to a one-year high in February.
Singapore is seeing families and money flowing in.
Joey Wang, a director at CS Corp, an accounting firm that provides migration advice in the city-state, has gained some 300 mostly Chinese clients since the pandemic. “COVID and the lockdown gave people a lot of time to think about their future,” Wang said.
Home purchases in Singapore, where Chinese are the top foreign buyers, cooled early in 2023 from last year’s torrid pace – but only slightly despite a steep rise in real estate stamp duties.
The Singapore American School has “seen significant interest from Chinese families looking to enrol,” it said in a statement responding to Reuters questions.
Canada, another real estate market popular with Chinese investors, has put a two-year ban on foreign purchasers. Agents in Thailand say sales enquiries from China are starting to pick up.
Foreign-currency deposits at China’s commercial banks fell 16.2% in the year through February, though it is unclear whether that suggests flows abroad.
One “measurement of disguised capital flight” is persistent net capital outflows through tourism but for other purposes, analysts at French bank Natixis said in a note, referring to larger capital transfers that accompany travel.
“A lot of people have been travelling to Thailand since reopening and they will look at the property market,” said Jenny Yan, marketing manager at a Shenzhen company that specialises in buying overseas properties.
“Properties in Thailand or Malaysia are pretty cheap, even cheaper than those in a third-tier Chinese city,” she said, with a luxury house costing about 2 million yuan ($300,000) and an apartment a quarter of that.
“With this many people travelling, there will be demand for buying.”
($1 = 6.8508 Chinese yuan renminbi)