i REAL ESTATE COMPANIES AND FIRMS
Real estate investment trusts (REITs), are real estate investment and financing products that are currently widespread. REITs have advantageous functions in the real estate market in that they can effectively channel funds to real estate companies, diversify the risks of real estate mortgages and loans, and provide a convenient way for minority investors to invest in the real estate industry. However, owing to legal obstacles, REITs have not been well developed in China. This article will provide an overview of the legal framework of REITs in China and analyse the obstacles in the markets and REITs trends in China from the perspective of a legal practitioner. The aim is to illustrate the need for REITs in China and the methods that must be employed to overcome the legal and market restrictions.
ii Introduction: origins and development of REITs in China
REITs are a type of trust plan in which funds from specific investors are collected through issuance of securities and invested in income-producing real estate. REITs implement a capital investment plan on real estate managed by professionals in which holders of REITs can acquire the income of business operations (e.g., sales and lease of properties in the form of dividends proportionately).2 It is worth noting that the terms trust and fund have specific legal definitions under Chinese law. It is not necessary for REITs to adopt the forms of trust or fund under Chinese law. A wide range of legal vehicles can be adopted (e.g., corporation, collective trust, contractual fund, etc).
REITs originated in the United States in the 1960s and were later introduced and developed in Australia, Europe, Japan and Hong Kong through statutory laws. REITs, as a financing product, can greatly reduce the cost of property possession for real property developers, provide an effective method of financing and a convenient way for minority investors in the real estate to share the incomes, reduce the financial risk as the consequence of mortgages provided by the bank, as well as ensure the sustainable development of the real estate industry. Considering the advantages of REITs, the Chinese government has been establishing the system of REITs and has run pilot projects. The innovative nature of REITs were discussed particularly during the period of economic structural reform that focused on the control of the real estate market. On 14 February 2007, the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) lent its support to the idea of trust investment companies engaging in innovative business, namely through the use of REITs.3 During 2008, real property price first dropped and then rose, and it was because of this that the State Council, the People’s Bank of China (Central Bank) and the CBRC issued regulatory documents on the piloting work of REITs.4 Since 2010, the government has been enforcing a stringent readjustment and control policy over the real estate market through the restriction on the sales and mortgages of real property. As a result of this policy, banks tightened their mortgage and loan policies and the financing costs for real estate companies increased. The fund shortage in the real estate market significantly impacted on the sales of real property. Under such circumstances, the Chinese government re-emphasised the development of REITs in 2014.5
i Publicly traded REITs and REOCs – structure and role in the market
The success of REITs in developed countries and areas such as the US, Australia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong indicates that the characteristics of REITs products are in accordance with the development of the economy and can play an important role in the sustainable development of a real estate industry.
Currently, the financing methods available for Chinese real estate companies are limited and primarily rely on bank loans to real estate developers, collateralised mortgages or financing through private equity funds. Although the financing cost of bank loans is low, it is subject to government policy to a large extent. Once the government imposes stringent control over the real estate market, the availability and conditions for bank loans are greatly affected, and so is the cash flow of real estate companies. Since lending banks generally require a collateralised mortgage, the ability of real estate companies to finance themselves becomes further impaired.
Additionally, REITs play an important market function in China. As a financing method that has an equity nature, REITs are stable and expedient for the professional operation of real estate projects and investment and will not result in the change of the control power of real estate developers over project companies or projects. Moreover, REITs are also relatively desirable investment products for minority investors as they have flexible trading channels and stable fluidity.
ii Cross-border complications and solutions
Comparing the experience of REITs in a mature market and the reality in China, the obstacles faced by REITs in China can be categorised into three aspects.
The development of REITs in China are faced with obstacles that are inherent in the legal system. In mature markets, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the systematic regulations, which regulate the requirements and procedures for the public offering of REITs, have been promulgated. However, no such similar regulations have been issued in China. In relation to trusts, there are a law (Trust Law) and regulations issued by the CBRC Measures for the Administration of Trust Companies and Measures for the Administration of Trust Companies’ Trust Plans of Assembled Funds. In relation to securities, there is a law (Securities Investment Fund Law), a regulation issued by the CSRC (The Administrative Rules on Asset Securitisation by Security Company), and a regulatory document (The Notice on Further Strengthening the Asset Management Services for Specific Clients Engaged by the Fund Management Companies and their Subsidiaries).
In terms of the practice of REITs in China, the current legal system is not clear and systematic regulations are still absent. In the field of trust law, in the background of separate management for different sectors of financial industry in China, the regulatory documents issued by the CBRC can only regulate private issuance; public issuance is subject to laws and regulations in other fields. However, REITs in other countries are typical public securities exchanged on the public capital market, which are not included in the regulatory scope of the CBRC.
In the field of security law, Article 58 of Securities Investment Fund Law provides that fund assets shall be used for the following investments: first, investment in stocks and bonds listed and traded on a stock exchange; and second, investment in other securities and their derivatives prescribed by the securities regulatory authority of the State Council. However, considering that the majority of REITs’ investment flows into the field of immovables, it is ambiguous whether REITs fall in the scope of security investment funds prescribed by the Chinese law.
Therefore, the primary obstacle to the development of REITs in China is the lack of systematic and unified regulations. Compared with the practice in the field of real estate finance, to establish a comprehensive statutory system, REITs would likely be examined from the perspectives of legal structure, regulatory authority, exchange market, ownership structure, limitation on minimal holding, limitation on development, the lowest percentage of real estate investment, and the lowest and highest proportion of profit allocation.
iii Tax considerations
Historically, tax preferences have played an important role in the development of REITs. In 1960, President Eisenhower signed a special tax regulation in which REITs were regarded as profit pass-through and double taxation could be avoided. This regulation remains unchanged except for some small modifications, and is regarded as the driving force behind the development of REITs in the US. REITs in the US further developed as a result of a series of reforms in relation to housing tax. Tax reform in 1986 allowed REITs to manage and operate real properties directly. In 1993, the restrictions on the investment of pension funds in REITs were removed. These reforms encouraged investors to invest in REITs, which led to a boom in REITs in the 1980s.
In 2002, the Ministry of Finance and the State Taxation Administration jointly issued Circular of the Ministry of Finance and the State Taxation Administration on the Relevant Issues concerning the Taxation on the Open-end Securities Investment Funds6 in which the tax preference policy of funds was clarified. First, the price difference income of the fund managers obtained from buying or selling stocks and bonds with funds was temporarily exempted from business tax and enterprise income tax before the end of 2003; second, no individual income tax was to be levied on the price difference income obtained by individual investors serving as fund subscribing and redeeming entities before the levy of individual income tax upon the price difference income from their buying and selling stocks was recovered; third, with respect to the income obtained by the fund from stock dividends and bonuses, the income from the interest of bonds, and the income from the interest of savings deposits, 20 per cent of the individual income tax was to be withheld and remitted by the listed company, enterprise or bank that issued the bonds when it was paying the above income to the fund. As for the income obtained by the investors (including individuals and institutional investors) from funds, the individual income tax and enterprise income tax were not to be levied for the time being. Fourth, as for the investors serving as fund subscribing and redeeming entities, no stamp duty was to be levied for the time being.
At the end of 2003, the Ministry of Finance and the State Taxation Administration prescribed that from 1 January 2014, the price difference of the incomes of the fund managers obtained from buying or selling stocks and bonds with funds was to be continuously exempted from business tax and enterprise income tax. However, this document applies to securities funds but not explicitly to REITs. In addition, the tax management of the Chinese government over funds and securities largely relies on the issuance of temporary documents, which also leads to an unstable tax policy.
Because Chinese tax collection has not been reformed and modernised, it is impossible to implement the levy based on the system of actual income and net income. The operation of REITs is related to a variety of transaction processes that result in a heavier tax burden. In this respect, although REITs may reduce the income tax levied on the fund, the company incorporated by trust that owns multiple properties would be liable for corporation income tax. Moreover, a transaction tax may arise from the property transactions during the process of REITs restructuring. In addition, the housing tax is inevitable once rents from the property are taken during the operation of REITs.
Since it is necessary for the restructuring of REITs to go through the procedures of assets transfers, if the multiple taxation cannot be avoided, the profits of REITs products and other derivative asset securitisation products cannot be guaranteed to a desirable extent. As a consequence, REITs cannot be successfully popularised in China.
iv Uncertainties of legal subject status
Another obstacle that lies in the development of REITs is that REITs have not been regarded as a legal entity. At present, the investment fund is not a corporation, or even a legal entity, and investment collection is not regarded as a legal entity in the Chinese law system. Also, no legal document has touched upon this issue so far.
There is no clear definition of fund in the Securities Investment Fund Law, which is the only law related to funds. On the contrary, the legal system tends to define the fund as a collection of contracts. In this circumstance, it is difficult for REITs to have legal title over real estate considering that they are not legal entities. The relationship between the trustee and fund is contractual and the ownership of real estate is proprietary. This is against the theory of civil law, namely that a proprietary right prevails over a contractual right, and may result in legal conflict in practice.
The common solution is to establish a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to hold the ownership of the real estate. At present, in terms of China’s Company Law, there is no provision with respect to SPVs. Articles 5, 7 and 12 in the Company Law effected on 1 January 2006 prescribe that the object of the company is operation of the company and the company shall have the business scope that is stated in the business licence. In other words, one of the conceptual differences between Chinese and foreign legal systems is that the company is an operation entity rather than an SPV. The obstacles to legal subject status may only be removed once further improvements to the Chinese legal system are implemented.
i Zhongxin Qihang
Zhongxin Qihang is a standardised product with a specific asset management plan, which is relatively similar to foreign REITs. It was established on 16 January 2014 upon the approval of the CSRC. Under the legal structure of this asset management plan, the CITIC Securities Company established an asset management plan that invests in a PE fund platform. The PE fund holds the equity of two project companies that separately own two properties. This plan adopts the traditional model of Product Plus Partnership Fund under which the investors will exit through the standardised IPO of REITs or equity transfer to any other third party at the market price when the plan expires.
The highlight of Zhongxin Qihang is its increase of fluidity in the way that it fills the gap between non-standardised products and standardised products, which provides an investment channel for institutional investors including insurance funds. This also overcomes the restrictions imposed on non-standardised products by the authorities.
However, there are a number of limitations in Zhongxin Qihang. First, Zhongxin Qihang fails to meet the requirements for proceed allocation as ROI of Zhongxin Qihang is substantially lower than that of standardised REITs in which the majority of the annual taxable income is allocated to the investor. Second, although Zhongxin Qihang can be listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, the prospectus states that in order to ensure that the number of investors is limited to no more than 200 after each transaction, each transfer of priority beneficiary certificate will not be less than 10 hands (50,000 shares/hand) and each transfer of secondary beneficiary certificate will not be less than one hand (300,000 shares/hand). The par value of every beneficiary certificate is 100 yuan. In other words, the amount of transfer for the primary and secondary beneficiary certificate will not be less than 50 million yuan and 30 million yuan respectively. These strict thresholds for transfer may substantially impair the fluidity of Zhongxin Qihang. In contrast, foreign standardised REITs provide lower thresholds that function as important property disposition for the ordinary investor. It is the excellent investment channel for minority investors that brings the opportunities for ordinary investors to share the benefit that arises in the process of urbanisation.
ii Penghua Wanke
Penghua Wanke is the first public REIT in China with the basic structure of a contractual close-end securities fund. It has been listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. During the closed period, Penghua Wanke invested in the equity of certain and single target company. The fund manager signed the agreement with the target company and original shareholders and holds the equity on behalf of the fund.
Compared with Zhongxin Qihang, Penghua Wanke lowers the threshold of subscription and greatly increases its fluidity. The prospectus states the minimal amount of each subscription for each fund account sold by the sales agent of the fund to be no less than 100,000 yuan. The minimal amount of each initial subscription will not be less than 100,000 yuan and additional subscription will not be less than 1,000 yuan in direct sales centre. During the fund-raising period, there is no limitation on the accumulated subscription amount for the single fund holder.
In addition, the progress of Penghua Wanke also includes an increase of the proceeding allocation ratio so that 90 per cent of annual allocable profits are allocated to the investors. However, similar to Zhongxin Qihang, Penghua Wanke has not disclosed that it is entitled to any tax preference outside of the current regulatory scheme.
However, Penghua Wanke has a long way to go to achieve the requirements of international standardised REITs. First, Penghua Wanke is a securities fund rather than an investment trust. Second, the trust deed that is required to establish a REIT is not involved, namely, no trust legal relationship has been established. As such, there is no establishment of a trust legal relationship and no trust asset. Third, the concepts of custodian and custodian bank are different from the meaning of trustee in the relationship of trust and the powers of which are different. The above-mentioned three aspects indicate that owing to the lack of the required legal environment and the failure to adopt a complete trust structure, typical REITs in China are currently still a long way from the standardised REITs in the international market.
iii Xingye Wanxin
Xinye Wanxin Yuejia Real Estate Investment Trust I is the first REIT publicly offered among banks. It obtained the approval of People’s Bank of China in December of 2016, and was officially offered in the national inter-bank market, the participants of which are commercial banks, insurance companies, securities companies, trust companies and other financial institutions.
The originator of Xinye Wanxin was Wanxin Chuanmei, and the manager is China Industrial International Trust Limited. Xinye Wanxin was issued for a period of 18 years for a total of more than 553 million yuan, including 330 million yuan in Series A Preferred Securities (at the rate of 4.8 per cent per year) and 223 million yuan in Series B Preferred Securities (at the rate of 5.4 per cent per year). The underlying properties were the land and buildings of eight bookstores located in Anhui province, the rent of which would be used to pay for the interests of the preferred securities. Wanxin Chuanmei or its affiliates may at the expiry of the REITs repurchase the properties to pay back the capital. The controlling shareholder of Wanxin Chuanmei provided guarantees for the repayment of capital and interest, and the properties were also pledged for such repayment.
Compared to Zhongxin Qihang and Penghua Wanke, which were issued in the stock exchange markets, Xinye Wanxi was a breakthrough in terms of its issuance in the inter-bank market. As all the participants were traditional financial institutions, which have sufficient funds and a lower interest rate requirement, this kind of REITs product is easily oversubscribed. At the time of issuance of Xinye Wanxi, the subscription amount was twice the offering amount.
However, as it can tell from the above description of Xinye Wanxi product, this product is much more similar to debt that emphasises fixed income and guarantees for such fixed income. Although it is offered publicly, only financial institutions are qualified to subscribe. In addition, there was no breakthrough in tax preferential treatment and perpetual term. This indicates Xinye Wanxi is still a long way off standardised REITs in the international market.
The REITs-like products in China have grown significantly since 2017 with the support of the government. Not only does the size of offerings increase rapidly, the products also become diversified, such as the first long-term-lease apartments REITs – the China Young Professionals Apartments REITs (CYPA REITs), the first rental housing REITs by state-owned enterprise – the Poly Rental Housing REITs, and the first city renewal REITs – the special programme for asset no. 1 of the city renewal REITs by Gohigh Fund (Gohigh City Renewal REITs).
The CYPA REIT was listed on 14 December 2017. The target offering size was 270 million yuan. The target asset was the CYPA flagship store located at Beijing Word Towers CBD. This product is an innovation to promote securitisation of the rental real estates in China. It took less than 20 days for this product to be approved, which showed the regulatory authorities’ support for long-term-lease apartments REITs.
The Poly Rental Housing REITs received a non-objection letter issued by Shanghai Stock Exchange on 23 October 2017. The target offer size was 5 billion yuan. The underlying assets were the rental housings owned by Poly Real Estate Corporation. The offering mechanism was shelf-storage and multiple-tranche offering, which means: (1) no specific underlying assets need to be identified during the reporting period of the product; (2) the authorities only reviews the documents regarding trading methods and trading plan; and (3) after the stock exchange issues a non-objection letter to confirm the term and amount of the product, the issuance schedule will be determined based on the formation of the underlying assets, the interest rates in market, and the capital needs of the original equity owner or the financing party. This product was the first to introduce the ‘one-approval, multiple-tranche offering’ mechanism to REITs products.
The Gohigh City Renewal REITs received a non-objection letter issued by Shanghai Exchange in April 2018, with an offering size of 950 million yuan. The target asset was Gohigh New Street, located within the northwest second circle of Beijing. It was the first product to enable investors of the city renewal funds to exit through securitised REITs.
The REITs-like products in China has catered to the market demands, but improvements are required in terms of long-term existence, tax preferences and diversification of investors when compared to the international standard REITs. Various deputies of the National People’s Congress (NPC) submitted proposals at the NPC and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March 2018, suggesting the government promulgate regulations for public REITs, support the REITs pilot projects and introduce REITs preferential tax policy. Standard REITs in China are expected to come soon.
Iv Trends of REITs in China
Despite the advantages of REITs and the need for their implementation, so far no REITs that comply with the international standards have been issued because of the legal environment. After reviewing the history and current situation of REITs across the world, it is clear that the development of REITs depends on the establishment of an appropriate legal scheme. REITS in the US began with legislative activities in the 1960s, as was the case also in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. At present, the absence of relevant regulations has resulted in the slow development of REITs in China. Therefore, the promotion of REITs depends on the following improvements in legislation and regulation.
First, the regulatory authority should be determined. Although China has been putting forward the promotion of REITs for nearly 10 years, it has made little headway. One important reason is that the regulatory authority is not clear. The Central Bank, CSRC, CBRC and the Ministry of Construction all intend to be the regulator of REITs. REITs was first promoted by the Central Bank because it intended investors of REITs to be institutional investors; ordinary investors have difficulties investing in REITs and the exchange platform will be the interbank bond market, the fluidity of which is limited. The CBRC and the Ministry of Construction also want to be the regulator for REITs but they have similar problems to the Central Bank. The CSRC has a comprehensive system for the regulation of securities and funds in the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and this makes the CRSC the most suitable candidate. The issued REITs, such as Zhongxin Qihang, are listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange with the approval of the CSRC. In the special structure of the market economy in China, the ambiguity of the regulator always leads to inefficiencies in the promotion of the regulation system. Therefore, determining the regulator and establishing a corresponding legal system as soon as possible are priorities.
Second, the issue of tax preference should be resolved. REITs are entitled to tax exemption in the foreign REITs structure for the purpose of maximising the benefits to investors. At present, REITs in China are not regarded as a securities fund and subsequently are not subject to the Securities Investment Fund Law in which the tax related to the contractual fund are exempted. Pursuant to the tax system in China, the revenue from the real estate operation shall be subject to business tax at 5.5 per cent, housing tax at 12 per cent and business income tax at 25 per cent. If REITs pay tax in accordance with the current tax system, the profit margin will be narrowed, which is not helpful in the cultivation and development of the REITs market. Therefore, the tax exemption or tax preference policy will be achieved through special statutory issuance.
Third, a real estate property registration system should also be established. All investors have common ownership over the real estate property via REITs in the manner of securities issuance, which means ownership registration will be at issue. No restrictions for ownership registration will exist if the REITs are incorporated as a company. However, in terms of the current legal system, the Chinese government tends to develop contractual REITs, which results in difficulties with ownership registration. To ensure independence of ownership and achieve the effect of judicial separation, a legal system that facilitates ownership registration under the name of REITs should be established. It will answer the concerns of investors regarding the independence of property ownership and avoid the high tax (especially LVAT and deed tax) that arises during property transfer, which will reduce the establishment and operation cost of REITs and subsequently facilitate the issuance and operation of REITs and mortgage financing.
1 Sammuel Zhao is a partner and a member of the managing board of JunHe LLP.
2 Zhirong Mao, Analysis of the Development of REITs in China, Shenzhen Stock Exchange Research Institute, 20 September 2004.
3 CBRC, Notice of China Banking Regulatory Commission on the Specific Issues Concerning the Implementation of the Measures for the Administration of Trust Companies and the Measures for the Administration of Trust Companies’ Trust Plans of Assembled Funds (No. 18  of China Banking Regulatory Commission), 14 February 2007, ‘the CBRC encourages the trust and investment companies that have been approved to be reissued new financial licences to initiatively propose trial plans in terms of business innovation and organisational management and, in accordance with the procedure for examination and approval, gives priority to their such innovative business as personal equity investment trust, asset securitisation, overseas financing upon entrustment and real estate investment trust, etc. Any reform measure that promotes the innovation and development of trust and investment companies and institutional supervision will be tried out on them firstly.’
4 General Office of the State Council, Several Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Promoting the Healthy Development of the Real Estate Market (No.131  of the General Office of the State Council), 20 December 2008, ‘We shall also encourage real estate development enterprises with good credit records to issue corporate bonds upon approval, and launch pilot real estate investment trust funds to diversify the channels for direct financing’; Central Bank and CBRC, Guiding Opinions of the People’s Bank of China and China Banking Regulatory Commission on Further Adjusting the Credit Structure to Promote the Rapid yet Steady Development of the National Economy (No. 92  of the People’s Bank of China), 18 March 2009, ‘We need to provide more financing support and financial services for real estate development enterprises that have strength and good reputation to merge or reorganise the relevant enterprises or projects, encourage the real estate development enterprises with good credit record to issue corporate bonds and do the pilot operation of real estate investment trust funds, diversify the channels for real estate development enterprises to raise funds, provide more credit support to the purchase of houses and improved houses, and encourage the purchase of ordinary commercial residential houses.’
5 China Securities Regulatory Commission, Opinions of the China Securities Regulatory Commission on Further Promoting the Innovative Development of Securities Operation Institutions(No. 37  of the China Securities Regulatory Commission), 13 May 2014. ‘Promoting the development of asset management business. Securities operation institutions shall innovate and improve asset management business processes, and improve the professional level in product sale, product design, investment operation, post-sales service, and other aspects. Qualified securities operation institutions may develop cross-border or cross-market products, or products covering different asset categories, or adopting diversified investment strategies and differentiated charging structure and charging level. Research shall be conducted to establish the institutional system of real estate investment trusts (REITs) and corresponding product operation mode and program. The investment scope of collective asset management plan shall be broadened. Investment in equities, creditor’s rights and other property rights that are not transferred through stock exchanges shall be allowed’; Central Bank and CBRC, Notice of the People’s Bank of China and the China Banking Regulatory Commission on Further Improving Housing Financial Services, 29 September 2014, ‘Banking financial institutions shall, under the premise of preventing risks, rationally allocate credit resources, provide support for the real estate enterprises that have good qualifications and operate in good faith to develop and construct ordinary commodity housing, and actively support the reasonable financial needs of the in-process and continuing projects with market prospect. Efforts shall be made to broaden the market-oriented financing channels, and qualified real estate enterprises shall be supported in issuing debt financing instruments in the interbank bond market. The pilot programme of real estate investment trusts shall be conducted in an active and prudential manner.’
6 Ministry of Finance and State Taxation Administration, Circular of the Ministry of Finance and the State Taxation Administration on the Relevant Issues concerning the Taxation on the Open-end Securities Investment Funds, ( No. 128), 22 August 2002.