Opinion

George Chen

Winners and losers as Hong Kong rents scale new heights

George Chen
Oct 27, 2011 05:52 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

When you walk around Hong Kong’s Central commercial and business district these days, you may notice a number of stores are holding “removal sales”, which means they can no longer remain in the same location. The reason? In most cases, just blame soaring rents.

Many analysts have forecast declines in residential and commercial property prices in Hong Kong for next year, although at a stable pace rather than a sharp drop. This may be true for some suburban areas where purchase options are more plentiful than those in downtown areas, but until that happens, prices are likely to keep rising, at least for the rest of the year.

A couple of years ago, mobile phone industry leader Nokia took a moderately sized space on Russell Road in Causeway Bay just opposite Times Square, one of the busiest shopping districts in Asia, for its flagship store in Hong Kong. Local media said the store used to be one of Nokia’s busiest in Asia, thanks to mainland Chinese travelers. But the good old days are going to end soon.

The Hong Kong Economic Times reported on October 27 that British luxury brand Burberry had signed a new lease with the owner of a site currently occupied by Nokia. Burberry is said to have agreed to pay HK $6.5 million (about US $836,600) per month for the two-floor 5,200 square foot space,versus the HK $1.8 million that Nokia is paying.

When the news came out, the reaction from the market was quite naturally, “Wow”. One reader on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blogging service, wondered: “How many coats and bags will Burberry need to sell to cover the monthly rent?” In Hong Kong, a coat or bag at Burberry usually sells for about HK $10,000-15,000. You can do your own calculations.

Japan, Australia, if not China?

George Chen
May 17, 2011 02:59 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

I am hearing more complaints these days from trader friends about how boring the market is these days. Why boring?

Trading volume is low and there are apparently more risks than opportunities as investors seek clear signals about the central bank’s monetary policy direction and about what global funds think of China for the second half of the year.

With investors uncertain about the outlook for the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock markets, some are beginning to rethink their positions on Japan. Concerns about radiation are easing and I hear more people talking about the big potential for Japan’s market and economy to rebound amid massive reconstruction there. An old and new question then arises: can we bet on the Nikkei, again?

From noodles to gasoline, inflation is not just an issue in China

George Chen
Apr 8, 2011 05:42 UTC

noodlesBy George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

These days I’m increasingly convinced that inflation is not just a China issue but a global problem and one that is becoming worse.

Yesterday when I posted a photo of rice noodles on my Chinese Twitter-like mini blogging account, I didn’t expect it would lead to quite such an active online discussion. I paid HK$16 (about US$2) for the bowl of noodles in the canteen of the University of Hong Kong (HKU). My friends from Geneva to New York to Shanghai “complained” that the price was way too cheap.

Well, the University Canteen is intended for students and I am indeed a HKU post-graduate student, part-time.

The next 48 hours

George Chen
Mar 29, 2011 03:32 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

What might you do in the next 48 hours in China? A number of things — how about rushing to nearby supermarkets to stock up on soap and shampoo if you are a price-sensitive consumer?

No kidding!

Retail prices for those products are set to rise sharply in China from next month. At least two industry leaders — Procter & Gamble and Unilever — were reported by Chinese media to have decided to lift detergent and soap prices by up to 15 percent next month.

State television on Monday showed images of empty store shelves in some cities as residents raced to hoard P&G and Unilever products before the price rises went into effect.

Dairy and property: How Japan’s crisis is affecting China

George Chen
Mar 17, 2011 09:06 UTC
Chinese moms While the rest of the world is trying to help Japan deal with the aftermath of its earthquake and tsunami, some parents in China and Hong Kong are on a single-minded quest to buy up as much made-in-Japan baby formula as they can. On my way to work on Monday morning, I saw a long queue of anxious-looking people in front of a grocery store. Over the following three days, the queue got longer and longer and more and more anxious. They were all after the same thing – baby formula from Japan. This is simply because some Chinese parents believe their babies are accustomed to drinking Japanese milk and they are concerned that radiation may affect the quality of exports from Japan in coming months Hong Kong media reported that retail prices for some Japanese baby formula have risen more than 30 percent this week. At present, the market price is about HK$250 (US$32) for a standard container and some retailers are reportedly limiting purchases to six per person to avoid angering latecomers. In this case, parents called on relatives, even elderly grandparents, to join the queue on their behalf (which works if you have many relatives and friends who are willing to help). Of course, Hong Kong parents are not alone in this concern. A fast-growing number of parents in mainland China are on a similar quest and they don’t mind paying HK$2,000 (US$256) for a round-trip ticket from major mainland cities to Hong Kong to buy made-in-Japan products. People in Hong Kong, may soon face a bigger disappointment as a result of Japan’s earthquake – the possibility of property prices rising even further and faster. Local property agents say they have noticed some landlords want to increase rents, especially in downtown areas such as Admiralty and the Mid-levels, which are within minutes of Hong Kong’s Central financial and business district, where many international banks have their regional headquarters. Global financial firms including Blackstone, BNP Paribas and Royal Bank of Scotland are relocating foreign staff, especially senior executives, from Tokyo to neighboring bases to avoid the possibility of radiation exposure. These executive typically head to Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing, with most apparently happier to choose Hong Kong, if not Singapore. Rents in Hong Kong are already a social problem, making the city one of the most expensive places in the world in which to live. The government has been trying to cool prices since late last year. With more rich but timorous bankers being relocating to Hong Kong from Tokyo and so far no indication of when they might return to Japan, the outlook for the property market in Hong Kong looks bullish. I’m not saying this isn’t a positive  trend, but given what is happening to the lives of ordinary people in Hong Kong and China, the crisis in Japan is becoming a crisis for Asia, if not the rest of the world. If the nuclear crisis cannot be contained and people lose confidence in crisis management and post-crisis protection, a chain reaction may be seen in many areas beyond dairy and property prices.

Japan

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

While the rest of the world is trying to help Japan deal with the aftermath of its earthquake and tsunami, some parents in China and Hong Kong are on a single-minded quest to buy up as much made-in-Japan baby formula as they can.

On my way to work on Monday morning, I saw a long queue of anxious-looking people in front of a grocery store. Over the following three days, the queue got longer and longer and more and more anxious.

Why property prices in China won’t fall

George Chen
Feb 25, 2011 08:01 UTC

property

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Let’s face it — it appears there is only upside for property prices in China.

Chinese officials from Premier Wen Jiabao on down to small city mayors have been telling the public they will try their best to keep property prices under control and have indeed done much in the past 12 months via tightening monetary policy and government restrictions on property purchases. The result? Unfortunately, the more they talk, the more disappointed Chinese people feel.

The People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, has so far raised bank required reserve ratios (RRR) nine times since January 1 last year. The most recent on February 18 brought the RRR to a record 19.5 percent. The theory is that as banks place more money with the central bank, market liquidity should tighten and buying power for everything, not just property, should weaken.

Tax, the new revolution in China

George Chen
Jan 28, 2011 03:51 UTC
Tax, the new revolution in China Karl Heinrich Marx spent most of his lifetime studying how to distribute social wealth fairly, and later Vladimir Ilyich Lenin concluded that revolution should be the way. In China, Mao Zedong picked up some ideas from Marx and Lenin and a “new China” was eventually created. We all know what has happened since then. Today in Shanghai and Chongqing, two of the richest cities in China, the local governments discussed how to distribute and balance social wealth, ideally for every citizen in the country. They decided to use financial tools rather than revolution, hence the new property tax, which Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan, considered a Liberal who helped Shanghai open up its Pudong New Area, said could help the city increase revenue from property to 200 million yuan this year. The reaction? An online poll on China’s top portal Sina.com showed this morning that nearly 60 percent of respondents voted against the property tax plan and more than 40 percent said they did not expect the new tax to lower property prices. Experts and scholars are now interested to see how Shanghai and Chongqing are going to collect the tax –0.6 percent for Shanghai and 0.5-1.2 percent for Chongqing, both announced on Thursday evening and effective from today — in a peaceful and practical way. Others cast doubt over the policymaking process — shall we have a consultation with taxpayers or at least go through local lawmakers, who are considered “representatives of the people”, for ideas before making a decision? The mayors of Shanghai and Chongqing both said the new tax they plan to collect, mainly from the fast-growing middle-class, will mainly be spent on building more cheap, affordable public housing for low-income people, hence redistributing social wealth. A very socialist idea. In my humble view, three factors are worth bearing in mind: First, all things considered, I don’t think the new property tax will bring prices down. Second, the property tax is a strong political signal from the government aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the poor, but it could certainly hurt the feelings of the middle-class. Third but not least, watch out, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and so on, you may see more Chinese immigrants buying property, little by little, if not in a rush from tomorrow. So, should we pay a bit more attention to Hong Kong developers? Maybe they’ll see better earnings this year if there are more property buyers from the mainland. Oops! What is Donald Tsang going to do to keep the city’s property prices from climbing? That’s another story, but at least most people in Hong Kong don’t believe that socialism can really work.

Marx

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Karl Heinrich Marx spent most of his lifetime studying how to distribute social wealth fairly, and later Vladimir Ilyich Lenin concluded that violent revolution should be the way. In China, Mao Zedong picked up some ideas from Marx and Lenin and a “new China” was eventually created. We all know what has happened since then.

Today in Shanghai and Chongqing, two of the richest cities in China, the local governments discussed how to distribute and balance social wealth, ideally for every citizen in the country. They decided to use financial tools rather than revolution, hence the new property tax.

Property under attack in China

George Chen
Jan 27, 2011 07:25 UTC
Property under attack in China While U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to see a quick property market recovery to boost investor confidence, China’s intentions for its own property market are the diametric opposite – not because it wants to damage investor confidence, but rather to cool growing social unrest prompted by fast-rising property prices. On Jan. 26, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hosted a cabinet meeting to discuss the latest property market situation. As a result of the top-level meeting, Wen announced his new “eight-point” guidelines, considered by many analysts as the toughest so far and probably his last major effort to curb property prices: 1. Local governments should set 2011 property price-control targets and make them public 2. Land supply for affordable public housing should be stepped up and the pace of construction increased 3. Properties sold within five years of purchase will be subject to a sales tax based on the selling price 4. The minimum down payment requirement on second homes will rise to 60 percent from 50 percent 5. Land supply for residential property this year should be no less than the average annual figure from the previous two years 6. Home-purchase limits will be adopted nationwide. Local governments should limit home purchases by non-local residents and those who have already purchased more than two homes. 7. Local government should take responsibility for stabilising property prices (in other words, those who fail to do their job could be punished) 8. Increased education to encourage more sensible property investment to create a more stable market for the long term Wen, whose nickname is “Grandpa Wen” for his usually warm public personality, has pledged to rein in property prices before the end of his final term in office in 2012. But time is short and progress has so far been limited, so he has decided to take action once again. Among the eight points, the most important is of course to raise the down payment minimum for second-home buyers. Local media have already reported a sharp rebound in property transactions, one or even two times more than usual since the beginning of the year in some big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. With the anticipation of more policy curbs, Chinese home buyers feel compelled to sign deals more quickly and more aggressively. Early this week, official think-tank the China Academy of Sciences released its 2011 forecasts, including an estimate that property price growth may slow but will still rise about 12 percent on average. Such forecasts should serve as clear cautions to Premier Wen if he wants to keep his promise before he retires. Ironically, property prices have risen more than ever before since Wen took power. Of course, you can’t blame him. All this, I say, is a natural process and the result of strong economic growth and increasing personal wealth. But just like a coin, everything has two sides. Those who get rich (as late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said “let some people get rich first”) are happy to get their homes. Those who miss the chance … oops … perhaps Premier Wen can do more to get them on track. For global fund managers, who are still talking about the beautiful China story: Wake up, please, because 2011 looks like a truly strange and difficult year for China, if not for the whole world. Chinese banks are under pressure, thanks to endless reserve ratio increases. Property is now under attack. Commodities prices continue to rise in global markets and most people say it’s too complicated to understand how commodities and futures products work. So, tell me which is relatively speaking the safest area to put money? Perhaps property if you are a firm believer in yuan appreciation, which could be even faster this year for the sake of Sino-U.S. relations? I do believe President Hu Jintao doesn’t mean to disappoint President Obama after his successful state visit. Apparently, Zhang Xin, CEO and co-founder of leading Chinese developer SOHO China, is still a big fan of the business. There is little reason to expect new measures by the Chinese authorities to rein in property prices will be any more effective this year than in 2010, she said. What happened in 2010? It was considered the toughest policy year for real estate in China. And the result? Property price rose more than 20 percent on average. “So what, you say? Do what I do. The property market is already out of the government’s control. It’s too late,” a fund manager summed up the recent property policies for me when we had lunch recently. Then he ordered another glass of wine despite complaints about his lower bonus this year, given mediocre fund performance in 2010. My fund manager friend is probably what Deng was talking about — those who get rich first. He’s now looking to buy his third home in Shanghai.

Hu, Wen

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

While U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to see a quick property market recovery to boost investor confidence, China’s intentions for its own property market are the diametric opposite – not because it wants to damage investor confidence, but rather to cool growing social unrest prompted by fast-rising property prices.

On Jan. 26, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hosted a cabinet meeting to discuss the latest property market situation. As a result of the top-level meeting, Wen announced his new “eight-point” guidelines, considered by many analysts as the toughest so far and probably his last major effort to curb property prices:

Two cities, one problem

George Chen
Jan 5, 2011 07:01 UTC
Shanghai and Hong Kong are often considered twin cities from a historical and economic perspective, and the two cities do face many similar challenges. One of the most burning issues is the ongoing property struggle between the government, investors and developers in the two Asian strongholds of business and investment, and of course home to growing populations. The Shanghai property stock index jumped more than 5 percent on Jan. 4, the first trading day of 2011 and the surge of Shanghai-listed property stocks gave a strong boost to the Hong Kong market. Given the bigger influence and impact of China’s economic development in Hong Kong since it returned to Beijing’s control in 1997, some traders often joke that the Hang Seng Index is like Shanghai’s mistress these days – your happiness depends on your master’s mood. Usually, if the Shanghai market rises, Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index will follow suit. When the Shanghai index falls, the HSI can fall further and faster. This week, Chinese property counters, trading at low valuations compared with their historical averages, mostly soared after local media reports indicated that the authorities could delay a new property tax because of disputes between the central, city and provincial governments, and property owners and investors. Apparently, the new property tax issue in mainland China, which some in the market had expected to be implemented as soon as possible to further curb rising prices, is running into the typical bureaucratic holdups. On average, property prices in the four first top-tier Chinese cities – Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen – rose more than 20 percent in 2010, according to local media reports, with Beijing recording the fastest rise of 42 percent on year. It’s understandable for the Chinese government to seek to control property prices via tax, an old-fashioned solution that has prompted some analysts argue that China is becoming more like a command economy, rather than the market-oriented economy it claims to be. More interesting, even Hong Kong, known as one of the world’s leading free markets, has drawn up a special bill to allow the local government to impose an additional stamp duty on short-term property transactions. So, what is a short-term property transaction from the viewpoint of the Hong Kong authorities? Buyers who sell within two years of purchase are considered potentially speculative. The special bill has won the hearts of local residents who are struggling to climb onto the property ladder, even for less than 300 sq ft, but the bill also faces growing criticism and objections from market activists, developers, pro-business lawmakers and of course, property investors. The Donald Tsang administration announced the new property tax last November, but the bill is pending approval from lawmakers of the former British colony before it can be put to work. Some activists and analysts believe the special bill will hurt Hong Kong’s image as a market-oriented free economy, which is the core reason Hong Kong remains a top destination for foreign investment. The Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong (REDA) issued an open letter to the media including Reuters last night saying the industry group supported the objectives behind the introduction of the new “Special Stamp Duty” targeting short-term speculation but was concerned the new rules would also affect “genuine home buyers”. Last year, when Hong Kong implemented the city’s first-ever minimum wage policy, at least HK$28 per hour (US$3.6) for low-income workers, The Economist magazine published an article commenting that the introduction of a minimum wage “marks the further erosion of Hong Kong’s free-market ways”. Let’s not be emotional. We know how poor Hong Kong people can be. Local friends tell me Hong Kong can be a nightmare for the poor but a paradise for the rich. The city is home to Li Ka-shing, who rose from poverty to become one of the world’s richest men, as well as the very poor who can only afford to live in a cage and eat twice a day. For a very long time, the poor didn’t really resent or complain about the rich, partly because many traditional Chinese are what might be called believers in destiny. With the rise of the younger generation, the atmosphere of dissatisfaction is apparently growing in the city. Technically and from a more academic perspective, moves such as the Special Stamp Duty on short-term property transactions and  the minimum wage policy could much to shake Hong Kong’s long-standing position as the world’s leading free market. Are we talking about capitalism or socialism for the future of Hong Kong’s economy? If Shanghai, one of the richest cities in mainland China must take the route of so-called socialism with Chinese characteristics to develop its economy and markets, it will be interesting to see what Hong Kong does next to please both Beijing and global investors.

DonaldBy George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Shanghai and Hong Kong are often considered twin cities from a historical and economic perspective, and the two cities do face many similar challenges. One of the most burning issues is the ongoing property struggle between the government, investors and developers in the two Asian strongholds of business and investment, and of course home to growing populations.

The Shanghai property stock index jumped more than 5 percent on Jan. 4, the first trading day of 2011 and the surge of Shanghai-listed property stocks gave a strong boost to the Hong Kong market.

Shenzhen, new home for Hong Kongners?

George Chen
Dec 10, 2010 05:53 UTC
When people from the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen began rushing to neighboring Hong Kong to buy cheaper daily necessities just few months ago as mainland inflation rose high and fast, some Hong Kong residents were apparently unhappy. This time, it may be the turn of Shenzhen residents to complain about the buying power of Hong Kong people. For what? Real estate. Hong Kong media including the Chinese-language, pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that average prices for new properties launched for sale in Shenzhen last month rose more than 16 percent on year, partly driven by buyers from Hong Kong after the former British colony, now led by Chief Executive Donald Tsang, issued special tax in early November aimed at curbing property price rises by targeting short-term speculators. Some Hong Kong housewives have already complained of a surge in local dairy product prices after more Shenzhen parents went to Hong Kong to buy baby formula and  related products. A large package of baby formula may be about 100 yuan (about US$15), but a new apartment in Shenzhen is now worth several million yuan. If you talk about luxury villas, prices are closer to 10 million yuan or even above, yet still much cheaper than the equivalent space and location in Hong Kong. Some people may argue the trend of Hong Kong people going to Shenzhen and other second-tier cities in nearby Guangdong province to buy property is nothing particularly new, but the recent tigtening property policy move in Hong Kong has certainly given the phenomenon greater impetus. Since the new tax policy was implemented, local media have reported a drop in new property transactions in Hong Kong, while the number of Hongkongers going to Shenzhen for property has surged. According to one agent interviewed by local broadcaster Phoenix TV, if you have visited Shenzhen in recent weekends, you are likely to have bumped into many visitors from Hong Kong scouting locations with their property agents. Technically, it could become more difficult for non-mainland Chinese to buy property in Shenzhen as the local government is also planning its own price-curbing policies to ensure affordable flats for local residents. But many sales agents apparently have a different view. Property agents are encouraging rich Hong Kong people to purchase real estates in Shenzhen for one simple reason — as the Hong Kong government is asking for an additional 5-15 percent tax if you sell your property within 6-24 months of purchase, why not just go to Shenzhen to buy something and bet on the fast appreciation of the yuan. In 24 months, how much further will the Chinese currency have risen? And the Hong Kong dollar? Could be a sound strategy? Many Shenzhen developers even organize virtually free weekend trips for Hong Kong people “to enjoy a day in Shenzhen”. You pay just HK$100 (about US$13), basically to cover the bus ticket, and join a group with a professional property guide to tour some of the newest developments in Shenzhen. Post-tour dinner or massage, which the city is really famous for? It’s your call!

China property

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

When people from the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen began rushing to neighboring Hong Kong to buy cheaper daily necessities just few months ago as mainland inflation rose high and fast, some Hong Kong residents were apparently unhappy. This time, it may be the turn of Shenzhen residents to complain about the buying power of Hong Kong people.

For what? Real estate.

Hong Kong media including the Chinese-language, pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that average prices for new properties launched for sale in Shenzhen last month rose more than 16 percent on year, partly driven by buyers from Hong Kong after the former British colony, now led by Chief Executive Donald Tsang, issued special tax in early November aimed at curbing property price rises by targeting short-term speculators.

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