Property is at the centre of everything in Hong Kong today, much like it was 20 years ago on the eve of the handover. Soon after the handover, prices collapsed, hitting rock bottom in the spring of 2003. They have since clawed their way back up, and some. With the 20th anniversary of the handover now upon us, will history repeat itself?
The similarities between now and then are only skin deep. In 1997, Hongkongers were extremely optimistic about the future. Foreigners agreed. The mantra was that China was set for explosive growth, Hong Kong, being China’s window, would be the conduit for all the money flowing to the mainland, and Hong Kong property would rise and rise on that money. Most bubbles occur because people got carried away. Hong Kong in 1997 fell into that category.
When the Thai baht collapsed, it exposed the problems in the East Asian boom. When foreign money pulled out, the Hong Kong property market collapsed. It showed that hot money was the driver for Hong Kong’s property market, not growth.
The collapse of the bubble exposed a greater challenge facing Hong Kong’s economy. The city prospered on China being closed. Arbitraging on China’s inefficiencies was the foundation of Hong Kong’s prosperity – being in Hong Kong offered a seat on the gravy train. The Hong Kong government taxed the privilege through high property prices to fund itself.
But, after China joined the World Trade Organisation, the gravy train was derailed.
Hong Kong has never faced up to this competitive challenge. For years, mainland tourism kept the retail sector afloat. But, is the future for Hong Kong youth to be shopkeepers?
Meanwhile, investment immigration juiced up the property market. It turned a whole generation of youth into property agents harassing pedestrians in the posh shopping districts. The latest financial boom is very much driven by grey income fleeing China. After 20 years, Hong Kong’s economy hasn’t built a lasting foundation.
This economic fragility is reflected in the popular pessimism today, in contrast to the widespread optimism two decades ago. Why, then, is there a property bubble now?
Three forces have been at work.
First, after the property collapse in the late 1990s, the city’s ruling class shrank supply to prop up prices. The initial plan to launch 85,000 public flats, a key component of Tung Chee-hwa’s housing programme, was abolished. Minimum prices were assigned to subsequent land auctions, cutting supply in a low-price environment. Even the land marked for public housing was later sold to private developers. When incomes are not rising, cutting supply can increase prices.
Second, after the 2008 property collapse in the US, the Fed cut interest rates to zero and kept them there for a long time. With an exchange rate pegged to the US dollar, Hong Kong has the same interest rate, and debt demand increased accordingly. Household debt has increased to 70 per cent of gross domestic product from the previous peak of 50 per cent in 1997. The debt, of course, has piled into the property market.
Lastly, China saw a massive increase in corruption in the decade after 2002. The grey income flooded into Hong Kong, much of it enabling cash purchases of properties. The flood of mainland money, in addition to juicing up property demand, has kept Hong Kong’s interest rates even lower than America’s.
However, all three forces are now reversing. Housing supply is likely to increase substantially in the coming years. Though still low relative to the population, the increase will have a big impact, because the prices are so high relative to income. US interest rates are going up. And, China’s crackdown on corruption will last for years to come.
Hong Kong’s property market is likely to behave like Japan’s in the past two decades, not like it did itself two decades ago. The US economy is not as strong today as it was then, and US interest rates may peak at 3 per cent this time, not like the 6 per cent then. Besides, China is much bigger now and will surely intervene if the market collapses like in 1998.
After its property bubble burst in 1992, Japan’s banks didn’t foreclose on their delinquent borrowers. That prevented the snowball effect in a bubble collapse. However, while such a response would save the economy the pain of a 1998-style collapse, the slow adjustment would trap the economy in stagnation, because capital could not be relocated into new productive areas from the bubble economy.
Hong Kong has been trapped in a property curse, which could last another two decades, diverting its attention from the main challenge of meeting the competition from millions of graduates from across the border joining the workforce each year.
Two decades ago, for a similar job, a Hong Kong salary was 20 times that on the mainland. Now it is three times. How long can Hong Kong justify the differential? It is already less competitive in education and infrastructure than tier-one mainland cities. The gap will only widen. Unless big changes are made, salaries in Hong Kong will not rise and may even decline.
Andy Xie is an independent economist