After months of protests and Covid-19 restrictions, Hong Kong’s biggest property tycoons are feeling the pinch.
At Peter Woo’s Wharf Real Estate Investment Co., retail rental income plunged by almost a third in the first half of the year, leading to a loss and a HK$7.4 billion ($955 million) hit to its portfolio. Revenue from Hong Kong property sales at Li Ka-shing’s CK Asset Holdings Ltd. slumped by more than 60%. The Kwoks’s Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. slashed rents for some tenants, while the biggest landlord in the Central district said its vacancy rate rose to 5% at the end of June from 2.9% in December.
With Covid-19 preventing tourists from coming and the national security law threatening Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub, the fortune that property moguls have amassed is suddenly shrinking. To make matters worse for them, the city’s financial secretary urged landlords to offer tenants concessions on rents — some of the world’s highest — to ride out a crisis that a resurgence of coronavirus cases is now taking to unchartered territory.
While seven of Hong Kong’s real estate tycoons still sit atop $107 billion combined, the impact of the recent events is clear: They’ve lost $7.7 billion this year as their properties got hit by the double whammy of political unrest and a virus outbreak that no one could have predicted. An index tracking the city’s developers has plunged 21%, more than any other industry group.
Wheelock & Co., which controls Wharf REIC, CK Asset, Sun Hung Kai, Henderson Land Development Co. and New World Development Co. didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Some developers that have yet to report their first-half earnings have warned about potentially disappointing results. One of them is Merlin Swire’s Swire Properties Ltd., which said in June the company will post a “substantial” profit drop and a loss of about HK$2.6 billion on the revaluation of investment properties, according to a company filing.
Overall, the city’s vacancy rate for office buildings is at the highest in more than a decade as foreign firms scale back their operations in Hong Kong. Mall traffic is down by more than a third from a year ago amid stricter social-distancing measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.
But the coronavirus was only the latest blow. The malaise all started last year, when pro-democracy demonstrations erupted to contest a proposed extradition law. While the bill was later withdrawn, the protests persisted with more demands, including direct elections of the city’s leader. The national security legislation was Beijing’s response.
Hong Kong’s real estate tycoons have largely rallied behind the security law. A developer association representing firms including CK Asset and Lee Shau Kee’s Henderson Land said it supported it because it would guarantee stability and prosperity in the city. The families behind Swire, Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd. and Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd. have also issued similar endorsements.
“Hong Kong’s property tycoons are subject to the state-security law as much as anyone else,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “And since the law is implicitly a ‘you’re with us or against us’ imposition, tycoons who want to stay in Hong Kong and make money are required to declare they support the law.”
Hang Lung Properties Ltd. Chairman Ronnie Chan said the bill has brought back some stability to Hong Kong.
“The national-security law is to restore the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, and I just don’t see any other way,” Chan said in an interview. “Those people who were demonstrating against the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, they asked for it.”
But to some, the real estate moguls helped trigger the protests that led to the national-security law. Chinese state media have argued that Hong Kong’s expensive homes were a reason for last year’s social unrest and lambasted the tycoons for propping up property prices. That pushed developers including New World Development of the Cheng family and Henderson Land to donate land plots to charity.
Minimizing both political and economic risks could be an arduous task for the tycoons. While they strive to limit the damage, it might take some time, according to Patrick Wong, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence who expects prime-office rents to fall between 15% and 20% this year.
“Heightened political instability, and a recent increase in Covid-19 infections could threaten to cast a pall over the city’s economic growth, which may further weaken office leasing demand in major districts in the second half,” he wrote in a July 24 note.
(Note: The story has been published without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)
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