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Russian property firms ride Kremlin-fuelled housing boom

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For generations of Russians raised on communism, crisis and a succession of currency collapses, owning one’s own home has long been seen as a measure of financial security.

But state initiatives to encourage that aspiration in recent years and fuel a boom in mortgage lending have raised fears that Russia’s housing market could now be a source of — rather than a bulwark against — economic disaster.

Construction cranes and identikit apartment blocks in various stages of development litter Moscow’s suburbs, towering over newly-built metro stations and vast highways and spilling out over the capital’s formal boundaries as its inexorable expansion continues.

Russian banks issued their largest ever monthly amount of mortgages in September and are expected to underwrite a total of Rbs 3.5tn ($46bn) worth in 2020 — a boom that will increase the country’s total amount of outstanding mortgage debt by 50 per cent in just one year.

Underpinning that expansion are government financial measures drawn up to promote the construction sector as a growth engine for the country’s battered economy since 2014. They include subsidised mortgages and family grants, alongside a surge in unsecured lending that has been either overlooked, or blessed, by the authorities.

As mortgage issuances have soared, so too have the fortunes of Russia’s construction firms. Developer Samolet — Russian for aeroplane — was founded just eight years ago but already has built more than 1.5m sq metres of apartment space. It listed late last month with a market value of Rbs57bn ($750m).

PIK Group, Russia’s largest residential developer, has seen its market capitalisation treble over the past four years — against a 65 per cent rise in the benchmark stock index.

PIK’s net debt rose 33 per cent in the first half of this year, almost entirely because of an increase in project finance. Net debt at LSR, the country’s number two developer, went up almost 20 per cent.

In the short-term, both companies and their competitors look set to keep cashing in. Russia’s government — backed by a recent endorsement from president Vladimir Putin — have extended the mortgage subsidy scheme past its planned expiry of November 1 to next July, at the earliest.

The programme provides grants to offset repayments and reduce the effective interest rate to 6.5 per cent. It also cuts the down payment required to 15 per cent. All told, it essentially amounts to a Rbs 2tn ($26bn) injection of taxpayer’s money into the housing market.

But some officials are warning that the market has risen too far, too fast.

Russia’s deputy finance minister Alexei Moiseev earlier this year warned that the subsidies “risk inflating a bubble in this market among people who are not sufficiently solvent to take out a mortgage”. He suggested that 40 per cent of Russians do not have enough income to make repayments.

Russian households are certainly feeling the pinch. Western economic sanctions imposed against Moscow in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, and strengthened after Russia’s attempted meddling in the 2016 US election, have contributed to stagnant gross domestic product growth since then.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, real disposable incomes in Russia had fallen for five of the past seven years. Incomes dropped 8 per cent in the second quarter of this year, the largest fall for more than 20 years amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, since July, when the market emerged from a coronavirus lockdown lull, average Moscow property prices have risen 9.5 per cent, according to data from Cian, a leading online real estate portal. New apartment prices are up 12 per cent.

“Now we do not see the risk of overheating . . . at the moment. But we must be very careful about housing prices,” Elvira Naibullina, head of Russia’s central bank, said last month.

How the Kremlin navigates an end to the program could well determine whether boom turns to bust. Ms Naibullina says the central bank is already assessing what the impact could be on mortgage owners and Russian lenders if prices tumble as soon as the government stops subsidising repayments.

The question for Samolet’s new shareholders and the tens of thousands of new Russian homeowners each month is whether the market keeps on rising when the Kremlin turns off the money tap.

henry.foy@ft.com



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Emerging Markets

Tech-heavy Taiwan stock index plunges on Covid outbreak

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Taiwan’s stock market, home to some of the world’s biggest tech companies, suffered one of the largest drops in its history as investors were rocked by a worsening Covid-19 outbreak.

The Taiex fell as much as 8.55 per cent on Wednesday, the index’s worst intraday fall since 1969, according to Bloomberg. It finished down 4.1 per cent.

Construction, rubber, automotive and financials — sectors retail investors had been shifting into from technology in recent months — were the worst hit in the sell-off.

The world’s largest contract chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which has a 30 per cent weighting in the index, fell as much as 9.3 before recovering ground to be down 1.9, while Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry, also known as Foxconn, dropped 9.8 per cent before paring losses to be down 4.7 per cent.

While Taiwan’s sell-off was related to domestic Covid-19 problems, it followed recent declines in global markets as investors worried about possible inflationary pressures.

The falls came as Taiwan’s government was expected to partially close down public life to contain a worsening coronavirus outbreak — something the country had managed to avoid for more than a year.

“The reason that triggered the escalated sell-off during the trading session is the new [Covid-19] cases to be reported this afternoon, and probably the raising of the pandemic alert level,” said Patrick Chen, head of Taiwan research at CLSA. “On top of that, the market before today was already at a point where the index was at an inflection point.”

Taiwan’s strict border controls and quarantine system and meticulous contact tracing measures had helped it avoid community spread of Covid-19 until recently.

That success, which allowed Taipei to forego lockdowns, helped boost the local economy, which grew about 3 per cent last year and 8.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2021.

But health authorities announced 16 locally transmitted confirmed cases on Wednesday, for three of which the infection source was unclear — a sign of widening spread in the community. Authorities had confirmed seven untraced cases on Tuesday, and domestic media reported that the government might introduce partial lockdown measures.

President Tsai Ing-wen called on the public to be vigilant but avoid panicking.

Taiwan’s stock market rose almost 80 per cent over the past year, peaking at a historical high late last month. It is now down 8.5 per cent from that mark.

Retail investors have increasingly moved out of technology stocks in recent weeks, reducing the sector’s weight in trading volume from almost 80 per cent at its height to just over 50 per cent.

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China factory gate prices climb on global commodities boom

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The price of goods leaving factories in China rose at the fastest pace in more than three years, on the back of a rally in commodities supported by the country’s economic recovery.

The producer price index rose 6.8 per cent in April year-on-year, beating economists’ expectations and surpassing March’s increase of 4.4 per cent.

The rate was driven in part by comparison with a low base last year in the early stages of the pandemic. But it also reflects a global surge in the prices of raw materials that was first stoked by China and now incorporates expectations of recovering global demand.

While PPI prices in China have leapt, economists suggested there was limited spillover into consumer prices and that the central bank was unlikely to react. China’s consumer price index added just 0.9 per cent in April, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday, although it touched a seven-month high.

“It tells us that demand at this moment is super strong,” said Larry Hu, head of greater China economics at Macquarie, of the PPI data, although he suggested policymakers would see the increase as “transitory” and “look through it”.

“We’re going to see some reflation trends,” he added.

Signs of tightening in China’s credit conditions have drawn scrutiny from global investors eyeing the prospect of higher inflation as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, especially in the US, which releases consumer price data on Wednesday.

China’s PPI index remained mired in negative territory for most of 2020 following the outbreak of coronavirus, but has started to gather momentum this year. Gross domestic product growth in China returned to pre-pandemic levels in the final quarter of 2020.

An industrial frenzy in China has stoked demand for commodities such as oil, copper and iron ore that make up a significant portion of the index and have helped to push it higher. 

Policymakers in China have moved to tighten credit conditions, as well as attempted to rein in the steel sector. Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, said the relevant question now was “whether the rapid rise of raw materials prices will dent real demand, given pre-determined credit growth”.

Retail sales in China have lagged behind the growth rate of industrial production, putting downward pressure on CPI, which has also been weakened by lower pork prices that rose sharply on the back of African swine fever. Core CPI, which strips out food and energy, rose 0.7 per cent in April 

Julian Pritchard-Evans, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said that producer prices were feeding through into the rebound in consumer prices, but also suggested that pressures on the former were “likely to be mostly transient”.

He added that output prices for durable consumer goods were rising at their fastest level on record.

China’s rapid recovery has been driven by its industrial sector, which has churned out record quantities of steel and fed into a construction boom that policymakers are now trying to constrain. On Monday, iron ore prices hit their highest level on record, while copper prices also surged.



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Iron ore hits record high as commodities continue to boom

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The price of iron ore hit a record high on Monday in the latest sign of booming commodity markets, which have gone into overdrive in recent weeks as large economies recover from the pandemic.

The steelmaking ingredient, an important source of income for the mining industry, rose 8.5 per cent to a record high of almost $230 a tonne fuelled by strong demand from China where mills have cranked up production.

Other commodities also rose sharply, including copper, which hit a record high of $10,747 a tonne before paring gains. The increases are part of a broad surge in the cost of raw materials that has lasted more than a year and which is fanning talk of another supercycle — a prolonged period where prices remain significantly above their long term trend.

The price of timber has also hit a record high as US sawmills struggle to keep pace with demand in the run-up to peak homebuilding season in the summer.

“Commodity demand signals are firing on all cylinders amid a synchronised recovery across the world’s economic powerhouses,” said Bart Melek, head of commodity strategy at TD Securities.

Strong demand from China, the world’s biggest consumer of commodities, international spending on post-pandemic recovery programmes, supply disruptions and big bets on the green energy transition explain the surge in commodity prices.

Commodities have also been boosted by a weaker US dollar and moves by investors to stock up on assets that can act as a hedge against inflation.

The S&P GSCI spot index, which tracks price movements for 24 raw materials, is up 26 per cent this year.

Strong investor demand pushed commodity assets held by fund managers to a new record of $648bn in April, according to Citigroup. All sectors saw monthly gains with agriculture and precious metals leading the way, the bank said.

Agricultural commodities have had an especially strong run owing to rising Chinese demand and concerns of a drought in Brazil. Dryness in the US, where planting for this year is under way, is also adding to the upward rise in prices. Corn, which is trading at $7.60 a bushel and soyabeans at $16.22, are at levels not seen since 2013.

“From a macro economic environment to strong demand and production concerns, the ingredients are all there for the supercycle,” said Dave Whitcomb of commodity specialist Peak Trading Research.

Rising copper and iron ore prices are a boon for big miners, which are on course to record earnings that will surpass records set during the China-driven commodity boom of the early 2000s.

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JPMorgan reckons Rio Tinto and BHP will be the largest corporate dividend payers in Europe this year, paying out almost $40bn to shareholders. Shares in Rio, the world’s biggest iron ore producer, hit a record high above £67 on Monday.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, has crept back up
towards $70 a barrel, which it surpassed in March for the first time in
more than a year, recovering ground lost as the pandemic
slashed demand for crude and roiled markets.

Supply cuts by leading oil producers have helped to bolster the market
as consumption has begun to recover around the world.

While some Wall Street banks have hailed the start of a new supercycle, with some traders talking of a return to $100 a barrel oil, others are less convinced. The International Energy Agency said oil supplies still remain plentiful meaning any talk of a supercycle is premature.



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