China's frothy property market falters in June

image captionChina's property boom may have peaked in June.

China's frothy property market may have peaked after a government clampdown on speculators, new data has shown.

Property prices across 70 cities fell 0.1% in June compared with May - the first monthly fall since February 2009.

Meanwhile, separate trade figures released at the weekend showed exports surging, but imports lagging.

The data paints a mixed picture for the Chinese economy, which some economists and investors fear may suffer a sharp slowdown later in the year.

Turning point

In April, the Chinese government introduced a series of new regulatory restrictions on the housing market that sought to restrict speculative buying.

These included higher down-payments on house purchases, stricter lending rules for property developers, and limits on the ability of investors to buy more than one home.

Many economists, investors and policymakers - both inside and outside China - worry that Chinese real estate may be experiencing a bubble brought on by excessively low interest rates, which has fuelled speculators.

Despite the monthly fall in June, property prices across China still remained 11.4% higher than a year ago.

Financial markets are now assessing whether Beijing will successfully pull off a soft landing in housing prices, or whether the Chinese property market will now deflate in the same painful way the US market has done since 2007.

Brakes on

The property market restrictions are just one dimension of a general move by Beijing to cool the economy down, in the face of accelerating inflation.

Data released on Monday by the Chinese central bank showed a continued slowdown in bank lending - which is tightly regulated in China.

Net new lending fell to 603bn yuan ($89bn; £59bn) in June, down 5.6% from May, and down more than half compared with a year ago.

The Chinese government had encouraged an unprecedented expansion in bank lending last year in order to weather the global recession. Now it wants to stop that expansion.

Much of the lending went into infrastructure investment. But some of it also went into property speculation.

Lagging imports

Meanwhile, Asian stock markets reacted well to the weekend's trade figures, which point to a stronger recovery in global demand.

Exports jumped 43.9% compared with a year earlier - well ahead of market expectations of a 38% rise.

Imports however only rose 34.1%, in a sign that Chinese consumer spending continues to lag the booming economy.

Some economists argue that the relatively weak spending by Chinese households may have the same root cause as China's property boom: low interest rates.

Beijing has kept interest rates down during and after the global recession in order to stimulate growth.

But some economists argue that this penalises Chinese households, who have large savings, and subsidises Chinese industry and property speculators, who are major borrowers.

'Currency manipulator'

The release of the trade data - which shows a big increase in China's controversial trade surplus - comes at a politically convenient time for China.

China pegs its currency, the yuan, to the dollar at an exchange rate that many in the US argue gives Chinese exporters an unfair price advantage.

The latest trade data came only days after US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner published a much delayed report on China's currency policy.

Importantly, the Treasury chose not to label Beijing a "currency manipulator" - a decision that undermines efforts by the US Congress to pass punitive trade sanctions against China.

The US Treasury's decision to take the political heat off China was a response to a more flexible exchange rate policy announced by the Chinese central bank in June.

However, so far this "flexibility" has translated into a mere 0.9% rise in the value of the yuan.

Slowing reserves

One indication of China's alleged manipulation of its currency is its accumulation of US dollar reserves.

In order to keep the yuan cheap, the Chinese central bank must hoover up all the unwanted dollars accumulated by its exporters.

And according to data released on Monday, the pace of reserve accumulation has slowed significantly.

The central bank said it collected only $7.2bn of reserves in the second quarter of the year, down from $47.9bn in the first quarter and a quarterly average of $113bn last year.

This may be an indication that since the new "flexible" yuan policy began, markets have had a bigger role in deciding the exchange rate.

However, much of China's reserve accumulation does not appear in the official data, making it difficult to draw an immediate conclusion.

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