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[Editorial] Real estate bubble

Building sales may signal drop in property prices

By 조혜림

Published : March 7, 2016 - 17:32

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Some major enterprises have been rushing to sell their real estate assets -- including their headquarters -- as part of efforts to brace for uncertainties, besides streamlining their operations and workforces.

This could be ordinary restructuring, as some insiders say, to save operating costs. But the timing is noteworthy as the real estate market is showing signs of sluggishness after a two-year bullish run.

Housing prices skyrocketed through the second and third quarters in 2015, buoyed by the record-low lending rates and the government’s stimulus policy. But it is faltering this year.

As a result, the analysis that companies are hastening to secure cash via sales of properties is drawing conviction. Analysts have noted that the corporate sector foresees an apparent drop in real estate prices in the near future.

Samsung Life Insurance, which has disposed of its headquarters in downtown Seoul, is considering selling several more buildings. Among others pushing to sell their assets are KEB Hana Bank, Cheil Worldwide, Hite Jinro, Samsung Engineering and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering.

While the two engineering firms have an urgent need to secure liquidity to normalize deteriorated financial statements, others like Samsung Life have shown robust earnings.

Policymakers need to closely monitor the situation, given the widespread perception that the property disposal by companies could signal a bearish real estate market. Some even forecast that a real estate bubble will burst in the near future.

Though the property prices -- both residential and commercial -- could recover and start increasing again due to the generally vitalizing spring season, the overall economy is still susceptible to risks. Last year, bank mortgages were actively issued to the household sector.

A lot of households purchased apartments on temporarily eased rules on mortgages, and banks allowed many of the households to enjoy floating-rate mortgages. There is no doubt that many households will be saddled with an aggravated payment burden if apartment prices fall and interest rates rise.

As financial regulators restored average rules on mortgages to curb overheating early this year, housing prices recently halted their growth due to decelerating transactions.

The government stands at a crucial crossroads. Major conglomerates might be betting on rising rates in the coming months. Their asset sales may be based on projections that the basic interest rate in the U.S. will continue to be raised, and that the Bank of Korea will have no choice but to follow suit.

A stitch in time saves nine. The government and the BOK should end their stimulus packages and map out exit strategies, which could minimize the shock to debt-ridden households by informing them as soon as possible of the need to normalize the unusually low rates on a gradual basis.

If the government chooses further low-key promotion of bank loans due to anxiety about a slump in domestic demand, it could lead to an irrevocable policy failure, fanning a housing price bubble.

In this context, calls for further easing the benchmark rate could be interpreted as irresponsible, arbitrarily disregarding the worst scenario of a hard-landing for Korea’s all-time high consumer debt.