BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A plan by southern China's Guangdong province, the first in the country to implement strict property cooling measures as directed this month by the central government, may signal at least 24 other cities could be next in line for a crackdown.
Two of the four cities singled out by the provincial administration late on Monday - Guangzhou and Shenzhen - feature right at the top of the list of 70 cities that have seen some of the sharpest home price spikes so far this year, according to Reuters calculations of official home price data.
The selection of those two cities, which topped and tailed a group of 26 at the end of 2012 with similar rates of appreciation, suggests there could be a wider target group in the central government's sights than the February data alone imply.
In 2012, Guangzhou's average home prices on an unweighted index basis were tied for fastest rising among the 70 cities tracked by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), gaining 2.3 percent over the year to share the top spot with Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang province.
Average home prices in Shenzhen rose 0.8 percent last year. Another 23 cities were in that 0.8-2.3 percent range.
Home prices in Guangzhou jumped 8.1 percent year-on-year in February, according to official data from the NBS, while those in Shenzhen rose 5.7 percent in the same period.
Of the other 68 cities the NBS tracks, only price rises in Beijing kept pace on an unweighted indexed basis, gaining 5.9 percent year-on-year in February.
On a population-weighted basis as derived by Reuters from official data, Guangzhou home prices jumped 18.6 percent in February from a year ago, while Shenzhen gained 11.4 percent.
If those two cities provide some guide to the potential upper and lower bounds of price gains that were deemed by China's State Council, or cabinet, to be rising "too quickly" when it issued its latest property tightening guidance on March 1, up to 24 more could be in the government's sites.
"These cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, where home prices have risen faster than others, face greater pressure from the central government and they are expected to unveil stricter detailed property cooling measures," said Liu Yuan, a head of research at China's biggest property brokerage Centaline.
"But we still need to wait and see the effect of the cooling measures as it depends on how local governments are going to enforce them," said Liu.
On a weighted basis, Chongqing prices leapt 22.4 percent in February year-on-year, the highest in the country based on NBS data of the 70 major Chinese cities its home price index tracks.
Beijing was close behind, up 21.8 percent, while Shanghai home prices gained 14.6 percent.
The central government said earlier this month it wanted local governments, in areas where property prices were rising too quickly, to strictly implement rules which impose a 20 percent capital gains tax and higher down payments for second-home buyers.
The crackdown came after data showed China's new home prices rose in February from a year ago for a second consecutive month.
Wealthy Chinese tend to park money in property because they have few other domestic investment options given relatively undeveloped mutual fund and bond markets and broad consumer distrust of local equity markets.
Chinese home prices more than doubled in 2009 after Beijing rolled out a massive economic stimulus package to combat the global financial crisis.
The central government has since been trying to rein them in with a series of campaigns that have variously curbed credit and tightened ownership rules. A lack of strict implementation has been largely to blame for patchy results, analysts say.
China property stocks .SSEP marginally outperformed a down market .CSI300 on Tuesday, with traders gauging that the plan from the Guangdong authorities was in line with the central government's directive of March 1, which had sparked a property share sell-off.
A Shanghai-based trader at a major Chinese brokerage said he expected more local authorities to release similar statements in coming days as the end-March deadline neared for them to reveal how they plan to toe the central government line.
Several Chinese property developers meanwhile have recently given relatively aggressive 2013 sales guidance while reporting 2012 earnings, suggesting they do not expect demand to be crimped too severely by the curbs, supporting share prices.
China Vanke 000002.SZ shares, up as much as 3.6 percent at one stage on Tuesday, were trading narrowly on either side of the flatline at 0653 GMT. They have retraced about half of a roughly 10 percent tumble on March 4 after the government's original announcement.
Additional reporting by Clement Tan in Hong Kong; Writing by Nick Edwards; Editing by Eric Meijer and Edmund Klamann