By Clare Jim
DONGGUAN (Reuters) - The days of rapid growth in China's real estate sector are over, but the government's urbanization drive will continue to drive demand for the next 15 years, the country's biggest residential property developer China Vanke Co Ltd said.
After climbing at double-digit rates through most of last year, home prices in China started cooling in late 2013, with the annual growth in average new home prices slowing to an 11-month low in April as a sustained campaign to clamp down on speculative investment and easy credit gained traction.
Vanke president Yu Liang said the slowdown heralded the end of the golden era for Chinese real estate, but said the outlook remained healthy thanks in part to urbanization.
"The white silver era has just begun," Yu told reporters at its research and development center in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan this week.
"The industry is now after quality and service and back to real demand...The industry was worth 8.1 trillion yuan ($1.30 trillion) last year, even growing at a single-digit rate, it's still large enough for us."
His comments came nearly a week after ratings agency Moody's lowered its outlook for China's property sector and forecast flat to 5 percent yearly growth over the next 12 months, compared to 26.6 percent growth at the end of 2013.
Yu said he believed government measures to curb speculation in the property sector had worked and prices were now more sustainable.
"I don't agree there's a bubble. Since the tightening measures in 2008, financial leverage of developers and individual investors has dropped significantly," Yu said.
LAND SALES WEAKER
Analysts said the latest land transaction prices have shown that the market is becoming more rational.
"Land sales in first-tier cities weakened in April as housing prices softened. It's important for developers to time and source the land purchase better because land cost is a big factor to determine margins," said Kim Eng analyst Karen Kwan, based in Hong Kong.
Kwan said developers in April were bidding on average 40 percent higher than the asking price at land auctions, compared to 80-100 percent above opening bids last year. Transaction prices in April were also 1 percent lower than the previous month.
She said data also showed that developers had been delaying some new housing projects so she expected less oversupply in the fourth quarter.
New housing starts in the first quarter fell 25.2 percent compared to a year ago, sparking concerns that a sharp drop in construction activity and falling prices would weigh on economic growth in the world's second-largest economy.
Yu's comments came just days after the chairman of SOHO China sounded alarm over the real estate sector.
"I am not upbeat about the residential market. I think China's real estate is like the Titanic and it will soon hit an iceberg up front," local media quoted Soho China chairman Pan Shiyi as telling a financial forum last week. "When it hits, it doesn't only create a risk for the real estate industry, but a bigger risk for the financial industry."
On Friday, the chairman of Greentown China Holdings Ltd said his frustration towards China's "twisted" and "unreasonably tightened" property market is one reason why he sold some of his shares to fellow developer Sunac China Holdings Ltd.
Vanke has joined a host of Chinese developers in stepping up their overseas ventures at a time when tighter liquidity, over supply and slowing transactions on the mainland are fuelling worries over the outlook for the country's property market.
Kim Eng's Kwan said it was natural for developers in less mature markets to expand into more mature ones, adding, however, that such a move may not benefit margins in the short run due to operational and foreign exchange risks.
China Vanke also aims to list in the second half of June, Yu said, part of its effort to expand its business overseas and tap the offshore capital market.
It announced in January last year it would move its foreign-currency B-shares to Hong Kong and got official approval from Hong Kong's regulator last week, becoming the third company to leave the mainland's moribund B-share market in Shenzhen.
($1 = 6.2392 Chinese yuan)
(Additional reporting by Elzio Barreto; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Miral Fahmy and Matt Driskill)