China’s anti-corruption measures have been tightening since President Xi Jinping took over in December. The measures specifically target government and army officials, but as a result rich Chinese citizens are now wary of publicly displaying their wealth and turning to the less conspicuous option of investing in U.S. real estate.
While the word "anti-corruption" has always been thrown around by each administration, it seems China is serious this time. The former minister of railways, a man who owned 21 houses, was sentenced to a suspended death penalty on Monday for bribery and abuse of power, the first high-profile sentence meted out since the policies were announced in December. Other cases are ongoing and covered extensively in Chinese media.
There have been calls to investigate the property holdings of government officials' children and relatives. An official with 21 houses under his name, dubbed “house uncle,” was arrested, as well as another with 24 houses dubbed “house aunt."
Even those Chinese who made money honestly, in this political climate against conspicuous consumption, are careful not to display their wealth. One unexpected consequence is that the Chinese, by looking for a safe haven for their money, have become increasingly avid investors in the American real estate market.
“If you were a Chinese billionaire two years ago, you bought youself and your kids $10 million apartments; you bought cars, yachts, planes,” said Jacob Frydman, CEO of United Realty and a veteran New York real estate developer. “Now if the government is making that unattractive, and you don’t want to stand out, and you say, OK, if I can’t invest in luxuries here, then can I park my money somewhere less visible?”
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Real estate, especially in the U.S., represents both a stable investment and a way to generate steady current income.
“The American real estate market, one of the most transparent in the world, presents opportunities for them.” Frydman added.
While the Chinese have been buying residential properties in the U.S. for a number of years now, largely in cash, recently more and more Chinese real estate investors are thinking in terms of yields and returns, and considering commercial real estate.
“The commercial real estate usually lags behind the residential by two or three years, which means that even as the residential has in part recovered, there are still opportunities in the U.S. commercial real estate market,” Frydman said.