Why rich Chinese are buying vineyards in cash

A hundred years ago, Amadeo Modigliani painted a portrait of his wild British mistress splayed across a red velvet throw, nude, her hips arched, her kohl-rimmed eyes shut. The artist was hardly trying to play it safe – Paris officials promptly shut down the show where the work was first exhibited.

By contrast, the purchase of the painting last week by Chinese collector Liu Yiqian for $170 million was a staid investment and – unlike his bold foray back into Chinese stocks at the nadir of this summer's crash - much more in line with those of other Chinese billionaires.

If 2008 was the year that the global financial crisis set Chinese wealth flowing across the globe, often in pursuit of dirt-cheap real estate in the United States and Europe, 2015 will be remembered as a year in which private money has been driven out of China and then stranded there while the economy back home adjusted jerkily towards a new normal. And where low interest rates have nudged funds out of banks, continued currency devaluation loomed and a crackdown on corruption has driven wealthy individuals out.

"Over the last four months wealthy Chinese have been shifting wealth offshore because of concerns that the renminbi is going to depreciate," said Shaun Rein, market director at China Market Research Group. "Coupled with that, the corruption campaign [is] very real and [people are] very scared."

Much of that money has been shifted to property in the U.S., London, Australia, Singapore and Canada. This year Chinese investors surpassed Canadians to become the biggest foreign investor in U.S. residential real estate, spending $28.6 billion in a single year, according to the National Association of Real Estate Agents.

There are also signs that the merely wealthy have joined the ranks of billionaires who bought properties in earlier years.

"The truth is it's becoming more of a mass market now," said Maureen Yeo, a General Manager with Fanssmore, a Taiwanese firm that helps connect western developers with Chinese clients. "It's more about volume."

While, in the past, Yeo brought clients to 432 Park Avenue in New York, where individual Chinese buyers have scooped up two or three floors worth of apartments for $16 million a piece, and to London's One Tower Bridge and Royal Wharf, a newer wave of clients is looking for houses at a fraction of that price, leading to more work and less profit for the likes of Yeo.

At the same time those who invested in overseas real estate in the wake of the financial crisis are not selling as prices of their assets rise but are instead broadening their portfolios – moving into different regions, buying different types of property and even investing in the kinds of small and medium-sized enterprises that would be considered high risk back home. For example, Yeo's earlier clients are investigating investments in vineyards and breweries in Europe. One client just bought a villa on a Greek island. For some, it is the beginning of a plan to bring their money home again, though it's uncertain when.

"This year is going to be tough and next year is going to be tougher," Yeo said. "It's a very cloudy time for us and we just need to wait and see what happens."

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the way Yeo remembers it, elite Chinese investors witnessed markets crashing in Europe and the U.S. and, after years of playing catch-up and being talked down to, had an epiphany.

"The attitude changed and they saw that Westerners were broke but the Chinese had a lot of money," said Yeo. "So they went offshore to do acquisitions."

The world's financial turmoil was barely felt by China. Only a tiny percentage of the population had invested in public markets and the few high net worth individuals who did regarded it as a high risk, short-term investment, balancing their exposure and exiting nimbly at the first sign of trouble. To make up for lost exports the government shored the economy up with stimulus targeting big infrastructure and real estate projects. Private money followed suit, targeting property and branching out to other types tangible assets, including art.

The share of sales going to Chinese buyers at Sotheby's Asia swelled from five to 40 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to Artnews. Over the same period Chinese collectors established themselves as force in the global art market, bolstering it at a time when it was sagging.

There was so much Chinese money floating around, Yeo's best year was 2013, well after property prices in New York and London had recovered.

"I had a lot of customers and they were paying in cash," she said.

At realestatehudsonvalley.com, which serves the wealthy town of Edgemont, home to the top ranked school district in the United States and the nesting place of Wall Street's family-men and women, Hong Kong-born Kathy Ng, who speaks Mandarin in addition to Cantonese and English, is the first port of call for many wealthy Chinese buyers.

Thirty years ago, wealthy Japanese emigres settled here to open the outposts of their newly booming economy. A small wave of Koreans soon followed in their wake.

In New York's suburbs, most Chinese house hunters flock to the nation's second-best school district, in Jericho, Long Island, where a well-established Chinese community has transformed neighborhoods, sustaining a network of Chinese agents.

But those who make their way to Westchester are relieved to discover Ng, who produces content for the agency's website.

"They are happy to see me and of course they rely on me," she said.

Such clients, said Ng, have a taste for large homes with swimming pools and, as with Yeo's clients, they pay in cash. Sometimes Ng wonders what would happen if she and her husband wanted to buy in the area in a more conventional manner - with a deposit and borrowings.

"If we wanted to spend just $800,000 and put 20 percent down, I wonder if they would just say, jeesh, nevermind, and turn us away," she said.

And they probably can. With China's environment looking inhospitable to the wealthy for some time to come, these sellers are likely to find big-spending Chinese buyers aren't going away anytime soon.


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