Workers clean the Keangnam residence tower in Hanoi September 20, 2011.
Like many hoping for easy cash in Vietnam's property market, Nguyen Thu Huong borrowed VND500 million ($24,000) from a bank in April to buy a new flat she didn't need and planned to flip. The only question, she thought, was how big the profit would be.
Five months later, she is lucky if she can sell it at all.
Vietnam's real-estate market has stalled, beset by soaring inflation, sky-high interest rates and sharp lending curbs. Developers are halting projects or delaying new ones. Prices have fallen from dizzying heights in 2006 and 2007 and brokers are bracing for more losses ahead.
"The real estate market is at its ugliest ever," said Doan Nguyen Duc, chairman of Hoang Anh Gia Lai Joint Stock Co and one of Vietnam's best known property millionaires.
"I expect the market to continue to fall much deeper."
Rewind just four years and speculators were lining up to buy condos as developers built entire communities in one of the world's fastest-growing economies, stirring hope the country of nearly 90 million people would soon enter a new era of prosperity.
Now, empty office towers and concrete shells of apartment complexes rise half empty from congested streets, threatening segments of the banking sector, where about 10 percent of bad debts are officially listed as property-related.
The actual amount may be higher and untold billions of dollars in other loans have property as collateral.
The slowdown will likely complicate an economic recovery that many economists had hoped was finally turning a corner after nearly a year of double-digit inflation.
"My fear is that we've had the collapse of the housing market but we haven't had the Lehman Brothers yet," said Jonathan Pincus, Dean of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, referring to the September 2008 collapse of the once-mighty U.S. investment house.
Huong and other consumers are learning the hard way that property prices can move in both directions, even in Vietnam.
"We could have sold the flat immediately for a VND200 million ($9,600) profit but we hoped to get VND500 million ($24,000) by waiting a few months," said Huong, who works in Hanoi at a government agency involved in the real-estate sector.
Meanwhile, she keeps doling out VND7.5 million ($360) a month in interest, a large sum in a country where the average annual income is about $1,100. A second installment of VND500 million is due soon.
"I can't afford to make the payments anymore," she said.
Starved for capital
Developers are feeling the pain, too.
In its campaign to tame Asia's highest inflation, the State Bank of Vietnam, the central bank, this year hiked interest rates and ordered banks to limit their level of debt in "non-productive" sectors, including property, to 16 percent of all loans by year-end.
That effectively dammed a river of cash that had become the life-blood of many property developers, as demand fell and advance payments from customers dried up.
When the market boomed, developers sourced about 20 percent of their cash from bank financing and 80 percent from advanced payments. But that ratio had flipped by 2010, said Nguyen Xuan Thanh, a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and head of the public policy program at the Fulbright School.
"Basically these developers cannot sell," he said.
Hoang Anh Gia Lai, or HAGL, one of the country's biggest diversified conglomerates, anchored by a large property development business, is one example.
After becoming in March the first Vietnamese firm to list on the London Stock Exchange, it reported negative earnings before interest and tax in the second quarter of this year after several consecutive quarters in the black.
The firm, strong in mid-end residential property in the bustling commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City, has been "hard hit" by the property downturn and was delaying at least three projects, the brokerage Saigon Securities Inc said in a report.
HAGL has now decided to shift away from its reliance on property. In 2010 it derived 90 percent of its income from the sector. By 2014 that will be 20 percent, said Duc, the chairman.
"There won't ever be a golden age for real estate like in 2007," he said, when margins were a "ghastly" 200-300 percent.
Peter Ryder, chief executive of Indochina Capital, which manages three private, closed-ended real-estate funds with over $2 billion of projects under management and development in Vietnam, said distressed investment opportunities were starting to appear.
"Either they can't get additional money from the banks because banks have been told "˜no more money for real estate', or they can't afford to pay the interest rate on new loans, let alone existing debt that's in place," he said.
In the past four years, credit growth averaged 35 percent a year. That added almost $100 billion in new credit, almost equal to the country's 2010 economic output. It also inflated Vietnam's credit-to-GDP ratio to a high 125 percent, the Asian Development Bank says. Non-performing loans also rose.
At the end of last year, the central bank reported the non-performing loan ratio at 2.16 percent. Two weeks ago, it said the rate by July was 3.04 percent -- an increase of over 40 percent. Central bank governor Nguyen Van Binh said the rate could hit 5 percent by year's end.
Credit-ratings agency Moody's Investors Service said on September 1 it believed Vietnam bank asset quality to be "far worse" than officially reported.
Analysts agree and some say the true figure may be higher.
Real estate is only one part of the bad-debt picture. Inefficient, indebted state-owned enterprises such as the near bankrupt shipbuilder Vinashin continue to rack up hefty losses.
But after a speculative boom that inflated prices to what HAGL's Duc called "unreasonable" levels and led many SOEs to set up real-estate arms, property loans may be the most toxic.
The National Financial Supervisory Committee, which advises the government, was quoted in the Saigon Economic Times on September 19 as saying about half of all non-performing loans may have to be written off, with real-estate loans making up the bulk.
Most at risk are a handful of small banks. The biggest banks have relatively low exposure to real estate, averaging around 10 percent.
Many small banks have 30-40 percent of their loan books in property, and some even have over 50 percent, a state newspaper quoted Le Xuan Nghia, vice chairman of the National Financial Supervisory Committee, as saying this week.
No bank has been singled out as in trouble but those with real-estate developers as major stakeholders are being watched closely. They had channeled vast quantities of capital into property projects under various guises.
State media say some big banks have overall bad-debt ratios above the average. At the biggest bank, Agribank, for instance, it is 6.67 percent, most of which Chairman Nguyen Ngoc Bao says is in real estate, VnExpress.vn reported.
House of cards
But two issues compound concerns about the problem: an acute lack of transparency and the open secret that many banks will do just about anything to suppress their bad debt ratios.
If banks fail to meet the central bank's 16 percent target for "non-productive" sector loans, they will see their capital adequacy requirements doubled and they will be barred from opening new branches.
Knowing they can't reach the targets legitimately, analysts suspect some banks are creatively rolling over or re-categorising an unknown quantity of Vietnam's real-estate debt.
"We think the banks are mortally afraid to call in bad debt because they have to report it and they don't have the money to increase their capital adequacy ratios," said one seasoned Vietnam property agent who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"Nobody wants to tell the truth because then the whole house of cards falls."
One trick that emerged last year is to disguise real-estate loans as corporate bonds, said Thanh.
"It happens with a lot of major real-estate developers," he said, adding that it was impossible to know the magnitude of the fudging because all are done as private placement bonds.
In late August, a report by Credit Suisse outlined risks to the corporate and banking sectors and came to this conclusion in a note to potential investors: "We recommend avoiding financial services and property as these sectors are at the heart of Vietnam's critical debt levels."
The central bank is working on a solution. It has plans to help 10 small banks with liquidity problems, although none have been named publicly, and is openly discussing possible mergers.
"The danger is that if the government cannot force the banks to restructure, or at least to recover as much as possible from their bad debt, then there will be a problem. There will be fiscal implications for the government because politically they cannot let the banks fail," said Thanh.
"They still can somehow fix the problem, but they have to do it now."