With volatility and devaluation at home, Chinese investors have become the No. 1 foreign purchasers of U.S. real estate, and interest in the Seattle area is said to be running high.
The glossy magazine’s pages contain a guide to Seattle and Eastside spas and high-end shopping, as well as ads for Mercedes-Benz and Roche Bobois, an upscale furniture chain.
What’s less expected is that it’s all in Chinese, since the new Seattle Luxury Living targets wealthy people from China who’ve bought homes here or are considering such a move.
But just as the magazine launched this month, China’s stock market took its latest dive, precipitating halts in trading, new government controls and concern around the globe that shakiness in the world’s No. 2 economy would rattle other countries as well.
Is Seattle Luxury Living’s publisher, John Spear, worried that affluent Chinese individuals, buffeted by the volatile market back home, will stop coming here? Quite the opposite.
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“We feel it will up the flight from China to here,” Spear said. “There’s now much more reason to come to a place where it’s much more secure financially.”
While China’s currency devaluation may have decreased its residents’ purchasing power, the volatility of the country’s stock market and slowdown in growth as the country moves toward a service economy have been pushing the wealthy to move their money offshore to safer havens and to diversify their investments.
And the Seattle area “is still so attractive to Chinese buyers, not only the financial value but also the culture and environment,” said Kristi Heim, president of the Washington State China Relations Council.
For the first time, buyers from China (including mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) have been the largest group among foreign purchasers of homes in the U.S., according to the National Association of Realtors. In the 12 months ended March 2015, they represented 16 percent of international buyers, compared with 14 percent from Canada.
Buyers from China also spent considerably more on such homes — $28.6 billion — than buyers from any other country. Canada came in a distant second at $11.2 billion, according to the report.
A good portion of that money has landed in this area. For the year that ended in March 2015, 8 percent of U.S. residences purchased by buyers from China were in Washington state, second only to California with 35 percent, the Realtors report says.
Additionally, Chinese investors were the major source of funding for at least $2 billion worth of Puget Sound-area commercial projects financed through the federal EB-5 visa program.
Who are these buyers?
They vary, according to Dean Jones, CEO of luxury real-estate company Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty and founder of its Asia Services Group.
Some are wealthy or middle-class families seeking to immigrate here, students (or parents of students) from affluent families attending local colleges, and business owners or entrepreneurs.
Others include those who own multiple homes in several countries and aren’t interested in immigrating to the U.S., investors seeking capital returns and a growing number of Chinese who’ve already immigrated to Canada and are now seeking opportunities in the U.S., Jones said.
Friday brought another plunge in China’s roller-coaster market — the Shanghai Composite Index dropped 3.6 percent, putting it more than 20 percent below its December high and entering bear-market territory for the second time in seven months, according to Bloomberg News. (The S&P 500 Index, by comparison, is down 12 percent from its May peak.)
The upheaval has stoked interest in moving some assets to areas that are seen as more stable, said several real-estate, banking and China experts here.
“I know from talking to my clients that the desire to get into our market seems to be even stronger,” said Holly Yang, a vice president at commercial real-estate firm Kidder Mathews who leads the company’s China Services Group in the Puget Sound market.
Yang is still getting plenty of requests for real-estate investments. She said her clients are talking about already having made money in the past year from their real-estate investments here, while if they’d left their money in China, they might have lost at least 5 to 8 percent because of the decline of the Chinese currency.
Longer term, it’s hard to tell whether individuals from China will invest less because they’ll have less purchasing power, Yang said, but “Right now, we haven’t got the sense that it’s going to slow down anytime soon.”
Spear, with Seattle Luxury Living magazine, is counting on that.
A former associate publisher of Seattle magazine, Spear came up with the idea while in Miami and seeing the huge growth there funded by investors from Latin America and other regions.
“That’s what happening here with China,” Spear said.
The magazine, published by Tiger Oak Publications in partnership with Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty, will likely come out twice a year. The articles are written by Seattle magazine staff and translated by freelancers.
The free magazine will be distributed in Starbucks locations in Shanghai, as well as its Pike Place Market cafe and its roastery and tasting room on Capitol Hill. Other distribution points include Hainan Airlines’ first-class airport lounges here and in China, hotels such as the Four Seasons and Fairmont Olympic, and Sotheby’s offices.
The Chinese government limits the amount its citizens can convert to foreign currencies to $50,000 annually — though people with money find ways around that limit. And it has controls designed to prevent sudden capital flight.
At the same time, the government recently approved a pilot project allowing certain citizens in some cities to invest directly in overseas stocks, bonds and real estate.
“The long-term trend points to relaxing of controls on cross-border investments,” Heim said.
Jones, of Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty, said his brokerage has been hearing that wealthy Chinese are “simply exhausted with the tumultuous equity markets and government intervention and such.”
Some clients have found that after the recent stock-market declines, they can’t turn their China assets into overseas cash as easily or profitably, so they are looking for financing options, like mortgages, rather than just buying with cash.
“That doesn’t change the trajectory,” Jones said. “It just changes how quickly they divest from China.”
Olive Goh, director of ultra high net worth clients at Citi Private Bank and head of its Asian Client Group for the Pacific Northwest, agreed. Even so, “we continue to see strong demand to diversify” into U.S. assets, especially in residential and commercial real estate, she said.
Joseph Ho, director of new markets development for Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Northwest Real Estate, says there’s some apprehension among his clients but no pullback.
Many of his clients from China tend to visit during the Lunar New Year holiday. None have canceled their trips for this year’s holiday, which is coming up next month, he said.
Ho expects that some clients may become a bit more conservative: “If they were looking at $8 million homes before, maybe they’ll look for $6 million now,” he said. “But I don’t foresee them pulling out of the market altogether.”
Robert Pong, a member of the board of directors for the Asia Services Group at Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty, said mainstream investment opportunities are somewhat limited in China, compared with the U.S.
“Real estate and stock market are two of the most popular areas where common citizens invest,” he said. “Now both of those sectors are becoming more volatile and unpredictable, which prompts even more Chinese investors to take actions to diversify overseas.”
David Bachman, a professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies who specializes in China, believes “the stock-market tumble shouldn’t be over-exaggerated in the sense of what it’s telling us.”
At the same time, he says, “there are much deeper structural problems in the Chinese economy that will be good for us in the short term, but in the long term could be bad for China and for Chinese investment in the U.S.”
China’s growth is slowing as it shifts from a reliance on exports and manufacturing — which fueled its explosive growth for years — to an economy that is services- and consumer-based.
Whether that slowdown means China will end up buying fewer Boeing jets, and its residents spending less on Washington state exports and properties, remains up in the air, Bachman said.
If China’s economic adjustment goes smoothly, the Chinese economy will generate steady, if not spectacular, growth, he said.
But if the shift goes roughly, “There could be a real crisis in the economy,” Bachman said. “It’s not necessarily likely. But it’s much more possible now than it was two or three years ago. The economic future of China is much less certain than it was before.”