By Langi Chiang and Bill Powell
BEIJING (Reuters) - A property glut in some smaller cities raises questions over how far China's decade-long housing boom can last at a time when the fragile economy is more vulnerable than ever to a possible retreat in the red-hot property market.
A flurry of housing investment over the past several years, fuelled in part by herd-like speculative buying, resulted in some developers building more housing than could be sold once the market began to slow.
Now, the concern is that the market could be cooling too quickly, and risk stalling one of the few engines in the economy that are still firing.
While new home prices in Beijing rose 14.1 percent in July from a year earlier and Shanghai prices were up 13.7 percent, smaller cities are lagging the major centers. The National Bureau of Statistics data showed average new home prices in China's top 70 cities up 7.5 percent on the year.
"Dozens and dozens of small cities -- still home to the majority of China's urban population -- have more housing than they need," wrote Rosealea Yao, a principal analyst at GaveKal Dragonomics, a Beijing consultancy, in a report.
"This excessive supply will put a serious drag on national construction growth for several years."
"STEADY AND HEALTHY DEVELOPMENT"
House prices have fallen for nearly two years in Wenzhou, a prosperous eastern city that had suffered fevered speculation before stringent controls on the property market took hold. In July prices in Wenzhou were down by an annual 2.4 percent in July.
While Wenzhou's falling prices remain an exception, the city's plight and its move earlier this month to relax some the toughest property market curbs are emblematic of the growing concerns about China's slackening economic growth and the risks of cracking down too hard on the housing market.
China's leadership, acutely aware of housing's importance to the economy, appears to have set aside concerns that a property boom was pricing millions of families out of the market.
That is how industry executives and analysts took a July 30 pledge to maintain "steady and healthy development of the property sector" by the Politburo, the top decision-making body.
"It was a clear signal that there won't be any new restrictions on home buying in order to temper price increases for a while," said Andy Rothman, Chief China Strategist at CLSA Asia Pacific Markets.
But leaving the market alone may not be enough. With stock markets volatile and caps on bank deposits, property remains the only game in town for millions of Chinese savers.
Total property investment accounted for 14.8 percent of gross domestic product in the first half of 2013, up from 13.5 percent a year earlier. Residential property accounts for 70 percent of that total.
And in a market where most apartment and houses are paid for in cash, mortgage lending has been on the rise with new mortgage loans reaching a record 963 billion yuan ($157 billion) in the first half.
Wenzhou's two years of falling prices is the exception, but price rises in smaller cities are lagging the major centers. Average new home prices in 70 major cities rose 7.5 percent in July, the NBS data showed.
Most economists believe incomes will keep growing enough to sustain relatively healthy demand for at least a year, and the government does plan to encourage urbanization.
"We expect a stable property sector policy in the coming year and see a modest property recovery to continue," said UBS chief China economist Tao Wang.
Industry executives say there is now a tide of new investment coming to top cities and provincial capitals, because demand remains strong. Over time, economists say, that could ease housing price inflation in China's biggest cities.
They also argue Beijing may have no choice but to scale back its ambition to spur more development in lower-tier cities.
That, said Dragonomics' Yao, could help China avoid what otherwise could be "a brutal construction crash."
The stakes for Beijing are high. A slowdown in exports and fixed investment means the economy is more reliant on the residential property market than it was even a year ago.
In the second quarter, employment in the property sector rose by 8,000, while manufacturing lost 164,000 jobs.
Tax income from the property sector rose 45.7 percent in the first half from a year earlier, while growth in the overall tax revenue slowed to 7.9 percent.
Housing, moreover, props up at least 40 other sectors, from cement to steel to furniture and home appliances. Local governments also depend heavily on revenues from land sales to developers to help service a debt pile worth trillions of yuan.
Still, some developers are scaling back.
Last month, Yu Liang, chief executive of China Vanke <000002.SZ>, the biggest listed developer by sales, said the company was pulling back from Yixing city in prosperous Zhejiang province.
And Yi Xiaodi, the president of Sunshine 100, a mid-sized residential developer based in Beijing, has put off plans to expand in Zhuzhou, a city with 3.9 million residents in Hunan.
"We changed our mind because of oversupply risk," Yi said. "We will avoid investing in cities where industrial competitiveness is fading and the market is plagued with over-supply. That will be very dangerous." ($1 = 6.1229 Chinese yuan)
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski and John Mair)