US Real Estate

The story didn’t get much media play back in January, but that’s when the U.S. Treasury Department and its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced the issuance of “Geographic Targeting Orders” for New York City and Miami.

The “GTOs,” according to FinCEN’s press release, require “certain U.S. title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind companies used to pay ‘all cash’ for high-end residential real estate.”

Basically, the folks at the Treasury are worried whether corrupt foreign officials or “transnational criminals” might be laundering piles of dirty money through these multimillion-dollar property purchases.

Or is Uncle Sam just worried about the flood of Chinese cash into the American real estate market? “All cash” is practically a synonym for rich Chinese property buyers.

At least, that used to be the case. As we’ve seen in the “cooling off” headlines around the country, the absence of this class of real estate purchaser is starting to be felt in markets around the country.

An article in The New York Times late last year really brings the impact of Chinese property buyers into focus. When it comes to purchasing a home in America, they pay an average price of $831,000 – nearly double what international buyers from India ($460,000), Britain ($455,000) and Canada ($380,000) pay for their homes in the U.S.

In coming quarters, I believe the FinCEN “targeting orders” will likely spell the end of the property-speculation craze among Chinese buyers. The government action may only be limited to New York City and Miami, but it will have a deep chilling effect everywhere. After all, it only takes another press release from FinCEN to announce an expansion into other American cities of its inquiry into the identities of those big-money, anonymous all-cash property buyers.

The trend will take time, with the data trickling onto economists’ spreadsheets. But as Chinese elites continue to pull back from American real estate, well, get ready for a “Wile E. Coyote” moment in high-end luxury home prices – and more pressure on the Federal Reserve to reverse its stance on interest rates.