HK central bank warns of asset price risk, fund inflows

By Reuters Staff
November 20, 2009

Hong Kong Monetary Authority Chief Executive Norman Chan, replacing the outgoing Joseph Yam, speaks to reporters in Hong Kong July 17, 2009.   REUTERS/Bobby Yip   (CHINA POLITICS BUSINESS   By Susan Fenton
HONG KONG, Nov 20 (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s central bank chief Norman Chan warned that asset prices in the city could climb sharply next year and disconnect from fundamentals, raising the risk of a bubble, and said surging capital inflows posed a dilemma for policymakers across Asia.

“With interest rates exceptionally low and with abundant liquidity around the world, Hong Kong faces the potential risk next year that asset prices may go up sharply and become increasingly disconnected from economic fundamentals,” Chan, head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, said in an article on its website.

While other economies could raise interest rates in a bid to curb inflation in assets such as property, that tactic could backfire and attract even more outside investors who are hungry for higher yields, Chan noted.

Hong Kong faces a different challenge. Its currency peg to the U.S. dollar forces it to track monetary policy in the United States, which is expected to keep rates low for some time.

The financial centre, a key gateway to mainland China, also prides itself on its open economy and thus would be unlikely to look at capital controls at this stage, analysts said. However, more measures to curb property speculation may be in the offing.

Emerging markets such as Brazil and Taiwan have both announced capital controls in recent weeks to keep what they say are “hot money” speculative flows from fueling sharp gains in their currencies and destabilising their recovering economies.

Russia said on Thursday it would consider “soft” measures to curb inflows, while Indonesia is also studying ways to control foreign investment in one-month central bank bonds.

HOT MONEY
Hong Kong attracted a record HK$567.5 billion (US$73 billion) in fund inflows between Oct. 1 2008 and Nov. 13, 2009, according to the HKMA. That has helped Hong Kong stock prices soar 57 percent this year and property prices surge nearly 30 percent.

Prices of luxury property in the city, however, have surged over 40 percent this year as mainland Chinese have been snapping up apartments. A weak dollar and expectations that U.S., and therefore Hong Kong interest rates will stay low for some time are also encouraging foreigners to buy Hong Kong assets.

That prompted the HKMA last month to tighten mortgage lending rules, especially on luxury property, by capping the mortgage limit for property valued at $2.6 million or more at 60 percent, compared with 70 percent previously. However, as many mainland Chinese buyers are flush with cash, that may not work.

The government has also said it is ready to release more land for sale to ward off a possible property bubble. This week it announced its first large-scale land sale in two years.

On Friday the government announced that property developers would have to make public their sales transactions of uncompleted first-hand residential property within five working days rather than one month from the end of November, saying it wanted to improve transparency in the market.

Developers must also show an apartment’s price per square foot/metre in ‘saleable area’ under the new rules, not just the overall apartment price, as the government said it was “deeply concerned” about some recent sales tactics.

Chan said it was not easy to say whether Hong Kong was now seeing an asset bubble but warned that values risked deviating from fundamentals.

Massive fund flows into the city’s banking system have put intense upward pressure on the Hong Kong dollar, forcing the HKMA to intervene repeatedly to keep the currency within its trading band against the U.S. dollar. The HKMA has injected a record HK$620 billion since October 2008.

In nearby South Korea, officials have also warned of the risk of a housing bubble and have threatened to raise interest rates from a record low 2 percent to calm prices.

(Reporting by Manoj Kumar in New Delhi and Seo Eun-kyung in Seoul; Editing by Kim Coghill) (susan.fenton@thomsonreuters.com; +852 2843 6367; Reuters Messaging: susan.fenton.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)

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