China’s property demons stalk Vietnam scene

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ONE may earn a high salary, but only real estate can build up wealth – for decades, that’s been the Chinese mentality.

Real estate accounts for roughly 70% of China’s household wealth and as much as 30% of its economy.

But China Evergrande Group’s debt blowup, with the tumbling home prices and mortgage boycotts that followed, have sent the economy into its deepest spin since the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese are having second thoughts.

Evergrande’s spectacular fall should also serve as a warning to Vietnam.

From the love of real estate, to the practice of pre-sales, to developers’ corporate governance, Vietnam shares too many similarities with China for comfort.

Already, the South-East Asian nation is peppered with developer scandals.

In March, the government detained Trinh Van Quyet, chairman of FLC Group, for stock market manipulation.

Quyet directed his relatives to open 450 securities accounts. They traded often, artificially created transaction volume and boosted share prices for his portfolio companies.

The next month, Do Anh Dung, chairman of another developer, was arrested for luring investors with false financial information. Dung had raised more than 10 trillion dong (US$427mil or RM1.92bil) from selling privately placed bonds.

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Audit season

Vietnam’s real estate developer crackdown caused a stock market plunge in the spring. These are familiar tactics deployed by Chinese developers.

The likes of Evergrande were always looking for ways to borrow, to expand their business just a bit further.

To circumvent Beijing’s regulatory scrutiny, developers raised money from private bond sales structured to be off-balance-sheet during the auditing season. Stock prices of their portfolio companies can also soar and plunge mysteriously.

That has not ended well. In the past year, 28 of the top 100 developers have defaulted or asked their creditors for extensions.

But the mother of all scandals was one committed by Alibaba – nothing to do with the Chinese eCommerce giant – but Alibaba Real Estate Corp, based in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam’s Alibaba had sold small empty plots of land, telling thousands of buyers that they were getting a piece of a major development site near the commercial hub. It scammed investors of more than US$100mil (RM445mil).

It was a sign of how chaotic and unregulated the real estate market can be – what Vietnam’s Alibaba sold was agricultural land that could not be used for residential housing – but also the reflection of a cultural mindset that prized land above all other assets.

Despite the 2019 Alibaba scandal, the Vietnamese are undeterred. Land is still the category of real estate investing that has shown the biggest capital gain, followed by landed properties such as villas and townhouses, and then condominiums.

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