Asia’s property taxes are covert capital controls

February 25, 2013

By Peter Thal Larsen

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Asia’s city-states are experimenting with a new form of capital controls: property taxes. In its latest effort to cool the market, Hong Kong has hiked stamp duty for real-estate transactions, apart from those that involve local first-time buyers. Discriminating against foreign speculators may distort the market and have limited success in constraining prices. Yet its popular appeal is clear.

Property markets in Hong Kong and Singapore are showing distinctly bubble-like characteristics. Despite repeated attempts by the authorities to reign in speculation, prices just keep rising. Residential real estate in Hong Kong has more than doubled in value since 1999: commercial property is up 250 percent. Buyers are now rushing to snap up hotel rooms – which may be exempt from residential taxes – and even parking spaces.

Yet the risks to the financial system appear to be contained. Monetary authorities in both city-states have intervened to prevent excessive borrowing: the average new Hong Kong mortgage accounts for less than 55 per cent of the value of the property. And banks must now assume that mortgage rates will rise by a full 3 percentage points when assessing borrowers’ ability to service their debt.

The problem is that Hong Kong and Singapore are seen as safe havens for foreign investors desperate for secure assets. And rising real estate costs cause social tension. Expensive property is one of the main reasons for popular discontent in both city-states.

That’s why both have decided to discriminate against foreign real-estate buyers. In December 2011, Singapore introduced an additional 10 percent levy for purchases by non-residents that it hiked to 15 percent in January this year. Hong Kong adopted its own 15 percent tax last autumn. Add in the latest measures, and the extra tax is significant: a Hong Kong resident who doesn’t already own property will pay 3 percent of the purchase price when buying a HK$5m ($645,000) apartment. A non-resident buying the same apartment will have to hand over 21 percent.

So far, the measures have only succeeded in slowing, rather than reversing, the rise in property prices. Yet as long as investors are desperately looking for somewhere to park their cash, the pressure for further controls will only increase.

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